I was never much of a houseplant collector, as I didn’t have an outstanding track record for keeping them alive. I much preferred caring for perennials outdoors in my flower beds, believing them to be much hardier for my style of gardening. I told myself to stay away from anything in a pot, to focus only on plants I could put in the ground, as even outdoor hanging baskets quickly met their demise in my hands. The poor things were either watered too much or not enough, over or under fertilized, and grew spindly or became crispy in too much sun.
“Try a cactus,” I was told, “it thrives on neglect.” I soon found out; however, that apparently there wasn’t a cactus in this world that I couldn’t kill. The plant coroners report sited ‘over watering’ as the prevalent cause of death. The occasional peace lily (Spathiphyllum sp.) or pothos (Epipremnum aureum) did manage to survive in my abode, but they were few and far between. The houseplants at the garden center would look forlorn when put into my cart, gazing pleadingly at their comrades as they were wheeled away. It was as if they had been given a death sentence, and they were walking the green mile.
If a houseplant did manage, by some miracle, to survive under my care, then they would have an even more significant obstacle to overcome: the four-legged family members in the household. I am, of course, referring to our cats, or should I call them plant piranhas, as all of them would like nothing more than to sample the delicate leaves of my potted plants, or knock them over so that they could play in the potting soil. However, I was starting to feel the itch to grow more plants indoors. The winters were beginning to feel more prolonged, and I yearned to take care of something green. I wanted to see some color inside the house when all I saw outside the window was grey.
Before embarking on my houseplant growing journey, I needed to stage an intervention for the health of the cats and the plants in my care. So, I designated a room in my house as a cat-free zone where my houseplants can thrive, or not. Outside of the cat-free area, I discovered the joy of growing plants in a Wardian case. In the early 1800s, Dr. Nathaniel Bagshaw Ward used these cases to protect his botany specimens from the polluted London air, but I would use them to protect my botany specimens from the plant piranhas roaming my house. It was time to try turning my black houseplant thumb into a different color.
I cautiously started to add a few plant species. My pothos plant had survived, so I added two more varieties. When those started to thrive, two Anthuriums (Anthurium andraeanum) joined the ranks, as well as a Ladyslippers’ Grape Ice,'(Streptocarpus) of which I am ecstatic to say I was somehow able to get to re-bloom (a first for me). With each new acquisition I would wait and watch, nervously twitching. ‘Is it dying?’ I would ask myself each time I walked by, and to my astonishment, the answer was ‘No, not yet.’
Feeling confident, I made frequent trips to the garden center. It was on one of these visits that I first laid eyes on the intriguing foliage of the Begonia rex (Begonia rex-cultorum). In a sea of beautiful greens, these stood out; they were simply stunning! I was fascinated by the fact that one plant species could have so many variations. The leaf shapes and colors were dazzling in shades of silver, maroon, mint green, pink, and more. It looked like an artist had just finished several miniature masterpieces. I had to bring one home; I had to try to grow a masterpiece.
When I brought my plant home, I started to do some research. Usually, I would recommend doing research before you bring a plant home to see if it would be a good fit, but my discovery so enthralled me that I sheepishly forgot that advice. I discovered that begonias are native to tropical locales and have over 1800 different plant species, making them one of the most abundant genera of flowering plants! When looking for advice on plant care, I found several sources that stated Rex begonias could be a little finicky and a bit demanding. What did I get myself into? Would this beautiful masterpiece become my next victim? I was determined not to let that happen.
Over the next few months, my new plant companion didn’t croak; it was a miracle. I was meticulous with its care, selecting a room with the correct light requirements, trying to water it only when needed, and checking it daily for any signs of impending death. So far so good…so why not try my luck with another? Several more varieties wooed me at the garden center, and in the year since, I have accumulated nine different varieties, all beautiful little masterpieces, and all amazingly still alive.
Currently, I am the caretaker of close to twenty houseplants, including one cactus (I may be pressing my luck) and I haven’t had to call the plant coroner for quite some time. Is it possible that my black houseplant thumb is starting to change? Not quite to green perhaps, but maybe to a dark brown? Is it that I am finally willing to pay attention and recognize what each of my plants need? Treating them as the individuals that they are, each with unique requirements and preferences? Time will tell, but I’m not going to give up. Those Rex begonias have caught my attention, and I’m sure I’ll be bringing others home. After all, there are a few hundred more varieties of begonias to try.