AT THE TENDER age of 70, our friend Jill left Washington DC for New York for two years to take a master’s degree in art. She left her ponytail palm, a Dr. Seussian plant that resembles a pineapple with a Rasta wig, in our care. As she’d nurtured the plant from a pup, and it was pushing 40, this was a nervous-making proposition.
It did well, though, lolling in its pot in the garden shade for the summer and set on a pedestal between our bedroom windows for the winter.
When Jill returned, and the palm (which, despite its name, is not a palm but a succulent) returned to her window, our pedestal appeared bereft. This was not an issue in summer, when the ancient elm at the sidewalk’s edge unfurled its majestic canopy and provided, in Realtor-speak, a treehouse view.
In winter, though, the space felt naked.
A fat, frilly schefflera bush, hustled in from the greenhouse, took its place. Immediately the room felt warmer, more inviting, more . . . seductive. Alive.
Such a simple change had that great an impact.
Indoor plants and flowers, they say, do have tangible benefits, cleaning the air, increasing oxygen. They also have benefits less obvious, uplifting mood, increasing creativity. To go a little Feng Shui woo-woo, they enhance a room’s Qi (or Ch’i), its vital energy and balance.
Years ago a Feng Shui practitioner took a look at my living room and pronounced it a horrible place to raise a child. “So much violent imagery,” she said with an actual shudder. At that point said child was in high school and appeared undamaged, but who knows?
Pointed out were a cannon that once held a gallon of Courvoisier V.S.O.P. cognac, a set of vicious-looking knives in an elaborately carved wood case, a rug patterned with warriors on horseback and a picture I inherited that’s made almost entirely of feathers titled “Tormento de Guatemozin” above the fireplace—that last is of an Aztec emperor with his feet to the fire.
My grandfather was an antiques dealer, which accounts for some, though not all of this.
To balance the Qi, she insisted on live plants (along with getting rid of or hiding some of the more egregious offenders). The feather picture would remain in place, though. It’s too wonderful and rare.
Taking a wander through the rooms today, every one has an element of nature. A sago palm (also not a palm, but a cycad) is in the foyer. A pair of potted palms (which actually are palms) are behind the living-room sofa, and a 7-foot schefflera tree is in a corner of the dining room, where it snags light from the French doors that lead to the back porch.
Tabletops have sprigs of greenery, maybe a flower or two.
I thank my little greenhouse for this. The room just off my office is filled with tropical plants that spend summers outdoors. At the moment, the Meyer lemon, a jasmine and the paperwhite narcissus are in full bloom, the scent near overpowering, drifting into the hallway and perfuming the upstairs. There are also hibiscus, a key lime, geraniums, Boston ferns, philodendrons, elephant ears and a bird of paradise so tall its leaves bend over at the ceiling (though it shows no sign of flowering, which is neither here nor there, just irritating).
Where there are no live plants, there’s wallpaper. Blousy pinkish-red tulips flounce on a green background in the bath, grapevines with curling leaves grow on the kitchen walls. Both patterns are large in-your-face scale, the better to be seen by the myopic. Permanent gardens.
While I don’t need another plant, if I come across fresh curly-willow branches—which seem to appear only around this time of year—I’ll buy a bunch and put them in water in a vase on the dining table. Virtually overnight, tiny green buds will appear along the four-to-five-foot-tall stems. These grow so quickly into fully leafed-out branches; it’s like watching a stop-motion video—and suddenly there’s a tree.
In the dead of winter, a delightful harbinger of spring.
LittleBird “Stephanie Gardens” finds Nature a source of wonder and comfort, indoors and out. She explores that concept every Thursday.