Home & Design

Green Acre #30: Sundays, Pretzels and . . . Philodendrons


Add a third stalk and this philodendron could take over Manhattan. / Photo by Stephanie Cavanaugh.


THERE ARE TWO THINGS I inherited from my Uncle Jimmy: his bunion and a love of the sound of baseball—not watching, just listening. The crack of the bat, the roar of the crowd, the Vin Scully at the mic. Sounds that were a background to summer Sundays when he’d visit.

For most of my early years we lived on Long Island, in Sands Point, famously known as Gatsby’s East Egg. It was, my parents thought, a better environment for children than the city.

Jimmy, my father’s much elder brother would arrive each weekend, bringing still warm pretzels from Grand Central Terminal, dapperly dressed in suit and vest, and hobbling along with his right boot side-slit to accommodate the aforesaid bunion, and a cane for support.

He’d then ensconce himself in front of the TV, watching baseball all afternoon, interrupting himself only to be fed. Sometime after dinner, and a few too many rounds of Dewar’s, he and my father would have a fight, usually about politics (my uncle was an unrepentant Republican). Jimmy would then be returned to the train station. “And don’t come back,” my father would say.

The next Sunday he’d be back.

Fortunately, just as I entered my teens, and thoroughly strangled by suburbia, we moved back to Manhattan and a pretty fabulous apartment with a wraparound terrace and a clear view of the Empire State and Chrysler buildings, a gob-smacking panorama that buffaloed me into agreeing to share a bedroom with my highly irritating little sister.

We get along fine now.

Uncle Jimmy continued to occupy space on Sundays, taking a cab up from his apartment in The Brevoort on lower Fifth Avenue and, ignoring the view, sitting in the dining room, eyes glued to the Dodgers, which were then properly placed in Brooklyn.

As a grand thank-you for putting up with him, I suppose, Jimmy one day sent a monstrous philodendron that he decided would be a fine addition to the dining room. It rose over five feet from its pot, stems twined around a log post, leggy arms reaching for the window.

Did I mention it was rubber?

My father, a furniture designer who resembled Bill Blass, with a bespoke wardrobe down to his hand-rolled, monogrammed handkerchiefs (among my mother’s many under-appreciated jobs was his maintenance), was appalled. The object was removed to his showroom, where it could gather dust in a vignette.

Replacing it in the dining room was a real philodendron, wrapped around a similar log. Not that it was to anyone’s taste, but it wasn’t worth war with Uncle Jimmy. Besides, there was the amusement of his sitting beside it each Sunday, rubbing the glossy leaves between his fingers and congratulating himself: “Amazingly realistic, isn’t it?”

At last we come to the point of this story.

Like hydrangeas, which I once viewed as an old lady sneeze, I’ve grown to love philodendrons. They don’t flower, but their foliage, ranging in color from bright shamrock to deep, velvety, jungle green, is stunningly ornamental.

They are also among the easiest, least cantankerous, of house plants. Why anyone would bother making them out of rubber is beyond me. Unless you leave them outside in sub-freezing temperatures (they are tropical and so not hardy), they’ll survive most any maltreatment.

There are two main types. Vining philodendrons, like Uncle Jimmy’s gift, like to climb something, preferably something appealing, like a fence or a wall.

Those that don’t climb require a great deal of space, like the Monstera Deliciosa (doesn’t the very name make you want one?), which grows as wide as it is tall, with split leaves the size of elephant ears. These take happily to cutting and sticking in a vase where they’ll remain ornamental for a month or more. Just two or three leaves create a Statement and are particularly handy in a dreary corner.

That they don’t care for direct sunlight I consider a plus. They also tolerate haphazard watering and careless pruning, and will survive my usual energetic if careless method of propagation: yanking them up and ripping apart the roots, which one periodically needs to do since they can rapidly grow to mammoth proportions.

Unless, of course, you enjoy living in a residential version of the Little Shop of Horrors.

—Stephanie Cavanaugh

LittleBird Stephanie is writing a book about city gardening. We’re laying odds as to whether she mentions philodendrons again. To see earlier columns, put Green Acre in the Search box at top right.

One thought on “Green Acre #30: Sundays, Pretzels and . . . Philodendrons

  1. Maggie Hall says:

    Baseball-loving, whisky-swilling Uncle Jimmy. What a hoot – all booted up with his bunion exposed. As for the “rubber” plant…they suffer from being over-watered? They love the shade? My sort of plant. Also, they sound handsome and perfect for a desolate indoor corner. I’m getting one pronto. And when my non-gardening pals ask what it is they will be told: “Oh, that’s a U.J.” And add, “btw his niece Stephanie is one of the funniest writers around.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.