Sunday, November 7, 2010


            Daylight Savings Time ended this morning in the wee hours. It’s one of my favorite days of the year, when Congress declares we can go back to telling time by the sun. 

            I can’t wear a watch. Well, that’s not strictly true: I can, in fact, wear a watch. It just doesn’t keep correct time for long. Something about my body’s electrical current stops batteries dead. Be that as it may, over the years I’ve developed a certain talent for accurately guesstimating the hour by the height of the sun and the length of shadows. DST just gums up the works by adding another step. Besides, my circadian rhythms are hard-wired to standard time. “Springing ahead” in March—it’s in March now!—causes a week or so of very cranky Kathy.

Solanum pseudocapsicum 'Variegatum'

            But now all’s right with the world because the sun is where it’s supposed to be when it’s supposed to be there.

Fall always reminds me of my sad and tortured history with houseplants. My green thumb, such as it is, turns black as soon as a plant crosses the portal from outside to in. No, really: I’ve killed pothos. I’ve killed spider plants and coleus and crotons and goldfish plants. Formerly healthy ivies and Persian violets erupt with spider mites. Dracenas droop. Swedish ivy sulks. Green caterpillars magically appear to defoliate geraniums and poop all over my piano. In 1999, I wiped out Tim’s entire collection of 20-some floriferous, velvet-foliaged African violets in four months. Even philodendrons don’t stand a chance in Kathy’s Kitchen of Flora Horror. Some years, the only non-human-or-feline beings to survive a winter in our house are the fungus gnats.
            It’s a gift, I guess.
As usual, I waited until the last minute to bring in the tender plants I’ve slated for overwintering. Alas, the local weather-guy issued a freeze warning for tonight. Yeah, like those people know what they’re talking about. Nonetheless, the annual rushed rescue began.
Cordyline terminalis 'Sunset'
            Plants find spending a winter chez Fitzgerald a dodgy proposition, for several reasons. First and foremost, there’s that history thing.

            It doesn’t help that our little house has no windows on either north or south sides. I count this as a blessing most of the year: only six windows and five mini-blinds to clean (once every other year or two, whether they need it or not). We never worry about airborne pine-cones or other missiles blowing in during hurricanes. But when winter rolls around, the lack of useable sills with bright-but-indirect sunlight looms large. Both our bedroom (east-facing) and Tim’s studio/office (west-facing) would be perfect IF a modicum of cat discipline had been instilled while there was still time. Too late now: the east-facing kitchen and the west-facing living room are the default positions.

            Naturally, neither room wins Winter Houseplant Environment of the Year awards. The kitchen’s faux French door opens onto the screened porch, meaning the light is brightest between sunrise and nine a.m. Our otherwise-useless front porch shades the living room’s double window except for a few hours before sunset. The spots where plants can go without being in the way are all directly under heating vents.
            To give you an idea of the reality of the situation, the average life-span of my Christmas poinsettia is less than three weeks. 
            Nonetheless, I’m nothing if not optimistic (Tim says “stubborn”). And I have had a couple of odds-busting, logic-defying successes.

Ledebouria cooperii

After spending a pleasant seven months on the shady side of the back deck, my spindly Cordyline terminalis ‘Sunset’ (above) now sits in a corner of the kitchen (beneath a vent, of course). This is her third winter inside. Ledebouria cooperii, a bulbous grass-like plant with dark green blades and attractive longitudinal red pinstripes (at left), has survived my cold-weather ministrations for four years, last season even managing to retain a good percentage of her leaves. And a variegated ribbon dracaena that the cats nearly grazed to death last winter recovered enough over the summer to tempt fate again. These three hardies will probably make it through to next April.

             Solanum pseudocapsicum ‘Variegata’ (picture at the top of the post) spent the past five winters on the screened porch. This year, because she’s been extraordinarily beautiful all season, I brought her into to the kitchen. If she defoliates, she’s out. She’s sheltered from the draft out of the vent by the cordyline (see picture), who might also provide quiet encouragement.
Hemigraphis alternata
'Blackberry Waffle'

            My friend Christine gave me a pair of papaya plants for the garden back in April. They did better than most of the commoner edibles in the vegetable patch, by which I mean they stayed green and healthy-looking. When I saw Christine a few weeks ago, she told me to bring them in for the winter. So today I pulled them out, potted them and moved them into the house. They’re too big for the kitchen or living room: one ended up in the studio/office, the other in the bedroom. Now we’ll find out if cats eat papaya leaves.

Mystery plant # 1

            Continuing the tropical trend, the sprouted mango seed I retrieved from the compost pile a month ago is now ensconced on the piano in its own little pot. Joining it are a Hemigraphis alternata ‘Blackberry Waffle’—a majorly cool-looking foliage plant with puckered, blacky-purple leaves, and a mystery volunteer that made itself at home in one of my petunia pots. It’s got small, bell-shaped palest-yellow flowers with green stamens and light green puffy seed pods with burgundy ribs. I usually feel pretty cocky the day I bring my victims in from the cold, so I dug her up, tucked her into a pot and plopped her on the piano. (There's a picture below: if anyone knows what this plant is, please let me in on the secret.)
            So that’s nine plants in the house this winter. Keep a good thought for them, and I’ll keep you posted on the attrition rate.
            Thanks for dropping in. Questions and comments always welcome. Y’all come again.