We’ve heard the adage, “Right plant, right place." This is helpful
garden advice, but also a reminder that we gain a sense of place by
observing and knowing plants as they grow in our environment. I grew up
in Asheville, North Carolina, and my memories are of the dense shade
under Rhododendron maximum, picking Gaylussacia ursina berries in July, and the unmistakable, musky odor of Galax urceolata colonies. Whenever I pass our specimen of Tsuga canadensis
on the Woodland Trail, I pause, and am reminded of the Appalachians,
where I would often encounter these trees leaning over mountain streams,
branches dipping low to the water, roots scrambling over the rocks.
But, what about houseplants, can we appreciate a sense of place from
plants so estranged from their native soils? Recently, I’ve begun caring
for the plants that we offer for sale in the Visitors Center, and I
have been confronted by their strangeness, their boggling diversity of
colors, shapes, and textures.
For example, from the forest floors of Brazil, we are selling Cryptanthus,
commonly known as Earth Stars. These odd little plants with
pink-banded, strap-like leaves are terrestrial bromeliads, relations of
the familiar pineapple. The name comes from the Latin word crypt meaning “hidden” and the Greek word anthos
meaning “flowers." Ours are showing signs of blooming soon, and I have
to disagree with this naming: the little bouquet of white flowers that
appears at the center of the rosette is hardly hidden, and is quite
One of my other favorites is the Zee Zee Plant, or, Zamioculcas zamiifolia.
It is an unusual and striking aroid, with glossy, fleshy, compound
leaves trusting upwards from stout, tuberous rhizomes. The Zee Zee is a
newer addition to the cast of houseplants available, having only been
commercially grown since the 1990s, but already has earned a reputation
as a tough plant, able to tolerate a range of abuses. In its native
ground in eastern Africa, the plant is adaptable to a range of
environments, including tropical moist forests, savannahs, and stony
ground. It readily regenerates from leaflets, which has earned it the
moniker “money plant” in China (because who doesn’t wish that their
money readily regenerated when set on moist media?).
Lastly, we have Diffenbachia, native from Mexico south to
Argentina, and better known as “dumbcane." This curious common name
originates with the plant’s ability to render a person mute when chewed.
This is attributed to the raphides (needle-shaped crystals of calcium
oxalate) present in this plant, which irritate the mouth, causing
numbing, swelling, and excessive drooling. Of course, left un-chewed, as
is my recommendation, it makes a graceful houseplant, with green and
Each plant belongs to a place, and has a story. Learning these
stories not only gives us important context which helps us understand
how to better care for these plants, but also feeds our imaginations and
curiosity-- getting to know houseplants is like exploring the world, if
only a couple leaves at a time!
By Carson Ellis, Horticulturist
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