By Stephanie Cavanaugh
WHEN THE AIR tickles 100 degrees the window boxes need daily watering, which I’m not inclined to do, as I am as wilted as they are. So I have to jolly myself along, pretending I’m a Parisian shopkeeper, perhaps, preparing my petite café for les clients. Bonjour! I call to the joggers and nannies pushing prams.
This makes the chore a bit more pleasing, romantic even, although I’m just talking to myself.
I do like the after-effect of watering, the leaves of the plants sprinkled with pearls of water. Merci! They say to me, though I suspect they add impolite words for the days I’ve tiptoed past, ignoring their distress.
Today I note with mixed pain and pleasure that caladium tubers I planted in May have suddenly popped up next to the coleus in one of the two lower boxes and two of the three boxes in the upper windows.
Both plants are lovely shades of pink and green, but I gave up on the caladium a few weeks ago, as there seemed to be nothing but dirt where they were supposed to emerge. Their appearance was a surprise, a not entirely welcome one since I’d recently said to hell with it and filled the blank spots with coleus.
Some years ago I came across a trio of window boxes in front of a Georgetown home, planted with nothing but caladium—though I thought it was coleus. In truth, I didn’t know the difference. It was midsummer and the plants were enormous, billowing, stunning.
When one encounters a sight like that, one gets mighty acquisitive.
Assuming they would grow from a few cuttings, I pinched—yeah, I stole some. Just a few little twiggies from an inconspicuous spot. I might be a thief, but I’m a sensitive one who would never disrupt such a grand display. At home, I dipped the stems in rooting powder, stuck a chopstick (these are great for such tasks) in the soil, inserted the stems and watered.
Within days they were dead. Oof. Karma?
Nope. What I’d pinched was caladium, which grows from a tuber, a bulb of sorts. I mistook it for coleus, which has similarly heart-shaped leaves and a similar range of colors but grows quite happily from cuttings.
Caladium leaves are larger (though not as big as elephant ears, which are a close relative with fabulously large and exotically tropical-looking green leaves). They are also softer, lighter, more delicate-seeming than coleus, which are more ruffled along the edges, thicker of stem and tougher of leaf, though certainly as colorful.
You can buy caladium as established plants, eliminating the “will they/won’t they” drama. But does their marginally more exotic appearance account for the difference in price, as they’re always a couple of bucks more expensive than pots of coleus? I hope that is not why they make me drool. I salivate not over designer labels, drive a 30-year-old Mustang (and it looks it—though it’s easy to locate in a parking lot), and still use my mother’s cast-iron pans.
That is neither here nor there.
I should have sprung for plants. With nothing emerging after more than a month, I bought coleus and plonked them in the boxes where the caladium was supposed to arise, the concept being that they’d form a splendidly tall and constantly colorful backdrop for the various lower-growing plants that are the mainstay.
And now I have both. How rich is that?
Note: Both plants are happy in the shade and provide color throughout the growing season—like marvelous perpetual flowers. Pull the caladium in the fall and you can store the tubers and replant them when the soil warms in spring. Coleus can be overwintered in a warm, brightish spot in the house. I’ve never done either, and do not intend to.