Home & Design

Green Acre #411: The Jungle Book

The parlor palms do predictably well in the, uh, parlor. / Photo here and on the front by Stephanie Cavanaugh.

By Stephanie Cavanaugh

I LIKE THE WAY the house feels when it’s full of plants, said My Prince. And full it is. We now live in a jungle. That this is a situation of his own creation is neither here nor there. 

Last spring my little greenhouse came down. It was an enclosed porch on the second floor, opening off my office. Lined floor to ceiling with windows, sunny through most of the day, it was perfect for wintering over the tropical plants that grow all summer in the front and back gardens. It was also over 100 years old and beginning to sag a bit from the weight of the overstuffed pots and the occasional drenching from overenthusiastic watering. 

So, it had to be rebuilt, he told me, promising that all would be fine by fall, neglecting to say which fall. At least he’s learning. Unlike the basement that he promised to turn into a bedroom suite by Baby’s 13th birthday, and almost 25 years later is nearly finished, there is no firm end date on the greenhouse. If I let him live, as some future fall comes around, he will be correct. This Sunday, I’ll have been married to this ever-too-busy-contractor for 40 years, and the “honey-do” list keeps growing.

The parlor by night, when some uplights allow the plants to cast light and shadow on the ceiling. / Photo by Stephanie Cavanaugh.

Some of the most tender specimens had to be moved to Baby’s house in Northern Virginia, where she recently moved with her Personal Prince Pete, I’m-Not-A-Baby-I’m-A-Boy grandson Wesley, and Tallulah the granddog. There’s space and sunshine, but even she doesn’t have room for all my needy pots.

Now every room in the house has greens in the corners, on tabletops, on pedestals, and on windowsills. That’s not counting the Chanukah bush, which is particularly lush this year.

What surprises me is how well many of the plants we kept are doing. This is not, as I’ve pointed out too many times, a bright house. It’s dim even with lights on. Cozy, though. That’s always been fine for the parlor palms that like the shade anyway, so they came in as they always do, unfurling behind the living room sofa. 

I’m amazed at the health of the jasmines, two in the dining room, picking up stray bits of light from the back porch doors. One bloomed quite fabulously in December. 

There’s a grow light on during the day for the white bird of paradise, also in the dining room, for a monstera plant that about hits the ceiling. The light also hits a schefflera and a hibiscus that’s struggling some, but I think it will make it through. It’s a full-spectrum light on a flexible stem that can be directed whichever way; it was a gift and has no maker’s name, but there are plenty of similar lights out there. A side benefit is the drama of the leaves lit-up and shadowing the ceiling at night. 

(I’m tempted to train it on my face: Aren’t these fancy full-spectrum lights supposed to boost collagen or something?) 

There were a number of plants that I just threw up my hands at saving. They were too large for any space I had available. So, learning from the monstera cutting that Baby gave me a year ago that still grows in a vase, its roots in water, I broke apart a dieffenbachia, a spiderwort, another monstera, and a clusia, kept the roots intact, rinsed them off, and stuck them in several vases.  

They don’t seem to mind the dim light at all, look lovely on various tables, and serve as a fine backdrop for flowering stems. Come spring, back to the earth they’ll go.  

Next week: Layering plants, flowers, lighting, and art for a dynamic home. 

Greenery everywhere: The monkey lamp spends time with roses, Dieffenbachia, spiderwort, and wandering jew, left.
On table with vase, right: Dieffenbachia and bird of paradise with roses. / Photos by Stephanie Cavanaugh.



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