(Although it feels frivolous to write about houseplants at such a sad and anxious time, I offer this post in the same spirit as those Italians who sang arias on their balconies at the peak of the pandemic.)
I like a grateful houseplant, the kind that perks up after a watering, and smiles greenly at me in the morning when I spritz it. Take the giant peace lily that I rescued from one of those big box stores just before the quarantine started. The margins of its leaves were being chewed up by an invisible pest or disease of some kind, but when I got it home I trimmed off the damaged bits and put it on a regimen of daily misting and weekly watering (it’s the only one of my houseplants that demands such frequent drinks). It promptly rewarded me by putting out a dozen shiny new leaves and even a couple of those weird white blossoms known as spathes. That’s what I mean by a grateful houseplant.
At about the same time, I also brought home a corn plant (Dracaena fragrans). It was an impressive specimen, taller than me, with thick, woody stems and several clumps of long, arching green-and-yellow striped leaves. Although the nursery tag did not mention this, I read online that I should never water Dracaena with city water. Even spritzing with it would cause the plant to develop brown spots that would expand until the leaf—and eventually the entire plant– shriveled and died.
I looked at my Dracaena and realized that whoever had been caring for it in the store had not read those warnings, as many of the leaves were already speckled with tiny brown dots. The experts advised using distilled water, but that seemed both expensive and ungreen to me. The alternative was rain water. It doesn’t rain much in February in Vermont, but there is plenty of snow, so for weeks I scooped handfuls of snow into a bucket, brought it inside to melt, and used it to water and mist the Dracaena.
Along with the Dracaena I had also bought a lovely variegated Cordyline fruticosa, or Ti plant (what can I say? It was the depths of winter, and the plants were unbelievably cheap). Again, though the nursery tag didn’t mention it, the online pundits were unanimous against using tap water on the Cordyline, so I put it on the same melted-snow diet as the Dracaena, and expected that all would be well.
The spring sun finally melted the snow, and from then on at the first sign of rain I would rush out and put a bucket under the downspout. The rainwater seemed to be working, at least for the Cordyline, which was putting out bright pink leaves that mixed with green as they aged, to produce a lustrous coppery color. But the Dracaena did not react so well. The original brown pinpoints grew larger, and new spots appeared where my rainwater spritzes had landed. I rechecked the online sources, made sure I was doing everything right, and continued with the treatment.
When the Dracaena showed no signs of improvement, I moved it to the brightest spot in the sunroom, but it continued to droop. Day by day it looked more feeble, seeming to shrink into itself. I began to feel that I was running a houseplant hospice.
There is something about a sickly plant that drains the soul. Locked indoors with my dying Dracaena, I found myself avoiding the sunroom with its doom-laden atmosphere, and resenting the plant for not responding to my attentions. All my other green houseguests—the peace lily, the Ti plant, the aloe, the aglaonema, the jade, and the spider plants that I grow for Telemann to nibble—were glowing with health. But not the Dracaena. Every morning I would look at it, give it a few spritzes, and check the soil to make sure it wasn’t too wet or too dry. But the plant ignored me and continued to decline.
I could have simply gotten rid of it, but it was a living thing, and a large one at that. It had presence. For all I knew, it had feelings of some kind. I had brought it home and taken responsibility for it, and in exchange I hoped that it would bring badly needed cheer and vitality into my days. Like people who hesitate to euthanize a suffering pet, I clung to the expiring Dracaena.
And then one afternoon, in a fit of irritation not untinged with guilt, I dragged it outside, chopped up the leaves and stems, and scattered everything in the woods. Then I went indoors, sat down in the sunroom, opened my book, and basked in the aura of ease and contentment that radiated from my remaining, grateful plants.