By MICHAEL TORTORELLO
Published: November 10, 2010
NEW YORK TIMES


FOR years now, my foyer has been a halfway house for indoor plants — that is, halfway between a cozy berth in someone else’s home and a pauper’s grave in my backyard.

I killed some of these plants gladly. Before leaving Minneapolis for New York, my friend Julie bestowed on me a 12-foot-long asparagus fern with wicked spines and an anger management problem. Meanwhile, the spider plant she left seemed to drop another clone every time I slept. (Out-of-control asexual reproduction is surely the stuff of nightmares.) By the time Julie moved back to Minneapolis seven years later, I’d terminated them both. Plants need water, you know.

Other houseplants were beautiful — until I got my blundering hands on them. A jade plant dropped its emerald leaves, as round and smooth as river stones. A Dracaena marginata with a mop top rotted from the soil up. My mother-in-law, her rooms overflowing with verdure, passed along a parlor maple (Abutilon striatum). It had flowers like crepe paper, the color of a Cape Cod sunrise. This one I drowned.

When I learned that I would be moving last August, for the first time in 11 years, I took stock of the survivors. What did I find on the radiator cover? A pair of umbrella plants that counted a dozen leaves between them. A ficus with something like psoriasis and another with a stoop. I felt pity, and I felt shame.

It was time for a clean break.

A month after moving into my new home, I phoned three experts to ask what new houseplants I should draw close to my bosom and adopt as my own. They suggested plants for shady windows and plants for dry winters. They shared their best tips and their favorite catalogs. They prophesied plants that cannot be killed. Their greatest hits are below — with a star next to the indestructible plants.

As for the widows and orphans from the old duplex: when the moving truck pulled up, I sneaked a few in the back. The ficuses were an anniversary present from my girlfriend, and I’m too superstitious to let them go. It’s one thing to live without houseplants; it’s another to live alone.

Uli Lorimer

THE DIRT Mr. Lorimer, 33, is the curator of native plants at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden. After nurturing “all kinds of things in sort of sad shape” at home, Mr. Lorimer said, he “disseminated the collection to the public.” (Translation: he moved the plants to the curb.) Mr. Lorimer’s new motto: “If it’s not worth growing well, it’s not worth growing.”

DIGS Perhaps only in Brooklyn — Williamsburg, to be precise — could Mr. Lorimer find a dwelling as strange as the crooked “rear house” he rents with his sister. To enter the late-19th-century residence, Mr. Lorimer must tromp through his landlord’s home, exit into a courtyard and then walk through his own front door.

WAX PLANT (HOYA CARNOSA VARIEGATA) Can’t decide which window should host this sweet-flowered, thick-leafed vine? Mr. Lorimer’s specimen has sprawled some 15 feet along a bamboo pole, from one window to another. The wax plant takes its style cues from “Desperately Seeking Susan”: the new vines are hot pink; the flowers, patently fake. The secret to raising it to adulthood, Mr. Lorimer believes, is “to back off the water” in the winter, imitating the plant’s natural dry period.

RABBIT’S FOOT FERN (DAVALLIA FEJEENSIS) A hanging basket made of wooden slats provides a comfy home for this fuzzy native of the Pacific Islands. Mr. Lorimer has encouraged his four-year-old plant to “creep around the bottom of the basket and make a kind of fern ball.” In the summer, the fern swings from the branch of a peach tree in his courtyard.

BIRD’S NEST FERN (ASPLENIUM NIDUS) Mr. Lorimer could probably bring more sunlight into the house — say, if he removed the roof. Somewhat easier, from a gardening perspective, is to select a shade-loving plant like the bird’s-nest fern, whose form resembles “a badminton shuttlecock” turned “upside-down.” The new growth from the central rosette is chartreuse, Mr. Lorimer said; the older fronds, which may be a foot wide, are dark and shiny.


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