Around the Island

Charity’s column: A houseplant destined for greatness

On March 13, 2020, I left a much-loved 50-year old houseplant standing near the bedroom window of my New York apartment and didn’t return for two months.

I left in a hurry, and my plant, which was used to a weekly watering, went dry because I was unwilling to go back into the city during the first months of the pandemic.

As I was leaving, I remember thinking panicky thoughts; that the five-foot tall dracaena wouldn’t fit in the car, that this houseplant had been in my life much longer than my husband, that I should have repotted it a year ago.

Over the next few weeks I imagined my old friend wasting away because of my carelessness. I sent thoughts and prayers. None of it helped, but the plant didn’t hold anything against me.

Instead, a year after this near-death experience, it bloomed for the first time ever.

I was in elementary school when I assembled enough allowance money to buy the plant for my first bedroom-of-my-own. The store called it a corn plant, and since I had already developed a serious mania for popcorn, the name sounded promising to me.

My family had just moved to Chapel Hill, N.C., and our new home had a slightly damp, partially-finished basement with indoor/outdoor carpet in an unfortunate pattern of burnt sienna, orange and yellow squares guaranteed not to show soil.

My sister Ellen and I were assigned the two basement bedrooms, adjacent to the room with a roaring furnace and a hot water heater.  These were the carefree times before smoke and CO detectors, and we were just thrilled not to have to share a room anymore.

In those days, the plant was only about a foot tall, so I put it near the window on a bookcase (painted purple to match my floral bedspread) and in low light it started putting out long strappy leaves with a light, variegated stripe down the middle of every one. It seemed happy.

The oldest potted plant alive is a palm-tree-like Eastern Cape cycad that has been growing at Kew Gardens in England for over 240 years, roughly the same age as the United States. According to industry data, houseplants live an average of 2-5 years, but like the cycad of Kew, my plant was destined for greatness, and would preside over a declaration of independence — mine.

Independence was declared when the dracaena accompanied me to my freshman dorm, then to the dim basement of an off-campus apartment complex, and then, at 10-years-old, to a “garden apartment” along I-395 in Alexandria, Va. None of these places had enough sunlight to sprout a radish seed, but the plant didn’t seem to mind, adding leaves and growing steadily taller on the same spindly trunk.

In May 1986 I went to China and my dracaena spent an entire month on its own. Before leaving, I inserted one end of cotton string into the earth surrounding the plant, and the other end in a large container of water, thereby allowing the water to pass slowly through the string and moisten the soil. This, I later learned, is called “wicking,” and it worked.

When I got back from China, the plant was the only thing in the apartment in good shape, since there had been some kind of electrical malfunction in the bedroom wall, resulting in a burned smell, a large hole, broken glass and general mayhem.

After that, I used the wicking technique to keep my plant alive anytime I was away for more than a week, especially after I moved the corn plant into my first office, a former ante-room to a corner office, just large enough for a desk and a bookcase, but facing south with a view of the Empire State Building.

I told my plant that we had hit the big time, and it responded by getting sunburned from the sudden exposure to light.

By then, I was so fond of my almost-20-year old dracaena that I didn’t judge its looks, until a senior editor stuck her head in my office and remarked that my plant, “looked like something out of Dr. Seuss.”

A few days later, I took it home in a cab.

And home was where it stayed for the next 30 years, requiring a new pot occasionally and a pitcher of water every week, growing a little every year, and looking increasingly shaggy, until the day last March when I abandoned it. 

Two months later, I walked into the apartment and saw what I had done. The soil around the roots was hard as brick. The leaves that remained made crackling sounds.

I lugged it to the bathtub, soaked it, and over the next few weeks kept it moist using the wicking method until I got it into the car on its side with the rear seats folded down and drove it to Shelter Island like I was transporting a rocket on a flatbed to Cape Canaveral for lift off.

Which it did.

The blossoms burst in mid-March from a spike that grew suddenly out of the plant’s crown. Sticky drops of nectar dotted the floor around my gangly dracaena. When the white flowers opened at night they were so fragrant I could smell them in the other end of the house.

Now the floor around the plant is littered with spent blossoms, and there is no more fragrance. I read somewhere that dracaenas typically branch, forming parallel stems after they bloom.

It’s a wonder to me that a plant old enough to avoid early withdrawal penalties on its 401(k) not only survived the upheaval of this awful past year, but thrives, blooms and could soon grow in new directions.