Y’all please welcome Ruth Kassinger, author of Paradise Under Glass: An Amateur Creates a Conservatory Garden.
I do all my gardening indoors, in the glass-filtered light of a conservatory nestled into the crook of our L-shaped house in suburban Maryland. No outdoor gardening, with its hammering heat, mosquitoes, and horrible hundred-legged beasties, for me. My soil comes, bug-less, in plastic bags. Water––into which I carefully measure half-teaspoons of fertilizer––comes from the spout of a watering can.
None of my potted plants are native. They all hail from well south of here, and that is my challenge: nurturing a tropical paradise where none has a right to be. The pleasures, though, are equal to the difficulties. This past February when snow piled up waist high in the backyard and the three-foot-long icicles hung from the eaves, I saw it through a scrim of palm fronds. When outdoor gardeners were reduced to reading seed catalogs, I was harvesting bright-red coffee cherries, Meyer lemons, and Meiwa kumquats.
It’s not dirty in my conservatory, which is just as well since this is where we eat all our meals and have come to live our lives, but it’s real and it’s definitely chaotic. Tall Alocasia bend over the Victorian wirework dining table, and a strawberry guava and three Bird-of-Paradise reach for the skylights. Pots of peace lilies hoisting graceful white spathes, pink-veined prayer plants, and variegated Dracaena cluster on the floor. My vertical garden––a hydroponic version I invented––covers one wall and is filled with marbled Pothos, red-leaved Fittonia, creeping fig, various ivies, and flashy bromeliads. The Pothos, to my delight, are now sending runners across the ceiling.
But give me Anthurium for creating the spirit of the tropics. These South American natives have large, heart-shaped leaves on long stems, and their flowers (spathes, actually) look like shiny, plastic plates that warped in the midday sun. I have varieties in every color on the L’Oreal nail polish display: traffic-cone orange, stoplight red, hot peach, sultry magenta, you name it. Best of all, these beauties are easy to care for, and they keep their colors for weeks and sometimes months.
My husband is not so fond of Anthurium as I am. They make him uncomfortable. I know why: rising from the glistening spathes are five-inch-long, cylindrical spadices that look for all the world like erect penises. Catch Anthurium in bloom and you seem to have caught them in flagrante delicto. In these summer days, it feels like we’re eating breakfast in a bordello. I don’t get messy or sweat-streaked in the conservatory, but here among the aroids, we’re definitely getting down and dirty.
I’m intrigued by the fact that Europeans didn’t understand that flowers are all about sex until about 1700. Instead, flowers were symbols of purity and the Virgin. I suppose that if the flowers you knew were violets, cornflowers, lilies, roses, daisies, and other modest and sexually discreet species, you could be forgiven for such naiveté. I’m certain, though, that if my vulgar companions had evolved in northern climates, the secret would have come out long ago.
Ruth has events coming up at Northshire Books in Manchester, Vermont on July 10 and at Politics & Prose in
Washington, D.C. on July 17. Check her website for more.