Sunday, November 10, 2013


I used to live and work in New York City.  Talking one day with a  colleague at my plant care company, I learned that his father was a trader at the New York Stock Exchange.  Amazing!

"How long has he worked there?"   Since he was in his twenties.
" How old is he now?''  Late fifties.
"How's his health?"  Wonderful.
"How does he deal with the stress?"   What stress.. he loves it.  It's a big game to him, he thrives on it.  He looks forward to every day.

And that was an Ah-ha! moment for me.
What is stress for one is not necessarily stress for another.

 If you love what you're doing, it's not stressful, it's challenging and interesting.  In other words, if you're getting what you need, you can adapt to the difficulties, and thrive on what others might consider threat to life and limb.

Houseplant species are much like happy stockbrokers.

In the beginning, all plants grew outdoors in the wild.  They certainly didn't evolve growing in pots in people's houses and offices in temperature and humidity controlled environments lit principally with cool white fluorescent.

While DNA didn't shape plants for the potted indoor life, what it did bestow was ADAPTABILITY.  That means that when conditions became less than ideal  - we'll call that stress -  plants can change their form, processes, even their cells to fit the new conditions.

So when some plants found themselves dug up from their comfy jungle homes, stuck into pots of who-knew-what, traversing the oceans in the hold of a ship, and then spreading their leaves in the parlor of a Victorian home, they set about adapting.

Home was a boggy river bank in Indonesia (what we call peace lilies,) with rain every day, and now it's sandy soil from a European garden? No problem...a change to the root transport system here, a change in the leaves there, we can adapt to getting water once a week.

Home was a field in India (for a Ficus benjamina), now it's a potful of peat and a corner in a living room? We've got this...just drop the old leaves and grow new ones with rearranged chloroplasts, a few changes to the stomata,  and soon we're hitting the ceiling.

How about those vines that grow like weeds all over the jungle trees in Burma?  (You know them as pothos.)  Pull them down, stick the tips into pots of sawdust and bark, put them in pots to hang in restaurants across the world...easy, just stay in juvenile form and take it as it comes.

Then there are pretty little palms happy down under all the trees in their wet Guatemalan jungle (parlor palms, you'd call them,) waking up in a pot of pebbles overlooking someone's terrace in the desert.  No humidity, no soil, no problem....some different roots, adjust the moisture conveyance...we are in business.

Don't get me wrong, not all plants can do things like these.  One of the differences between and within species is the RANGE OF ADAPTABILITY.  Some types of plants can adjust to a wide range of conditions, and some can't.

The ones that can are the ones that are on the lists of "Easy-to-grow houseplants."  The ones that can't are found only in botanical gardens, expert growers, or back home in the jungle.  And sometimes dying in people's homes, because now and then growers will try to market them to folks who don't know about their specialized needs.

The moral of this story - besides to admire the wonderful abilities of "common" plants - is to note that the philosophy of keeping plants by approximating their native habitat has pretty much been disproved.  Also why there is so much conflicting information about plants in the literature - people have success with a lot of different approaches to watering, soil, even light, and record their own experience as "the" way when it's really about the plants' ability to adapt to different conditions.

I think meaningful plant care articles are those that present comparisons among a range of variables - different amounts of moisture, different levels of aeration, different soil mixes, different light values, etc.
You folks then have a place to start for your own experimentation, so you can discover  what works best for your own combination of environmental variations.

Basically, if you start off with champion adapters and give them what they really need - minimum light, neither too much nor too little water, no freezing -  the plants will take care of the rest.   There's lots more to keeping houseplants, of course, but this is really the bottom line.

Happy houseplants and happy stockbrokers...they all know how to deal with stress.

(By Marlie Graves)