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weeder’s digest

by Grace Bonney

As we’re about to turn the corner on yet another spring I find myself puttering about re-potting those plants who have struggled through the long winter with me indoors with low humidity, insufficient light and countless hours of Barbara Streisand. As I diligently clean dead foliage, divide and conquer over-achievers and water my ailing aloe with eggshell water cocktails I take pause to reflect on my darker moments of plant annihilation.

The jig is up! I have to come clean about something…In all your kindness you’ve rewarded me with an onslaught of glowing comments, grammar corrections and questions about your houseplants. Jade looking a bit jilted? Ailing aloe? Truth is you have me googling the garden hotline faster than you can say “powdery mildew.” It seems I may know a thing or two about arranging and caring for cut flowers, but house plants are another can of worms. I’ve learned many things in my recent history and hope to share some of those things here. More than anything, a house plant requires patience. And so I give you my personal story of sabotaging house plants:

Killing me Softly; One Lonely Purple Heart and the Road to Recovery

Tradescantia Pallida (Purple heart or Purple Queen) is the plant that coaxed my brown thumb to kinder shade of olive. Years ago I got my hands on a modest specimen, and I would never be the same.

The fact that Eric and I found ourselves in a Home Depot deep in the Garden State is beside the point. That we selected from that meager and generic greenhouse – albeit unknowingly – the strongest most resilient houseplant of all ages is the reason why I sit here tonight waxing poetic on the virtues of propagation, cultivation and the art of winning friends through the casual distribution of plant cuttings.

A Purple Heart will live forever. It appreciates under-watering, can withstand low (or high) light environments, and can easily escape the wrath of common plant pests. It rooted for me (literally, that is) when nothing else would. It was quite simple; we brought the plant home and it didn’t die. A piece fell off. We stuck in in water. It developed roots…those roots got stuck in dirt, one became 2…then 3 and so forth. Next thing we knew we were surrounded by cuttings and plants. We gave out cuttings to friends and customers. We touted the virtues of the Purple Heart to plant killers far and wide. We were botanical masters! Eventually I began trying my hand at other frondescence. Soon my plant prowess extended to geraniums, aloes, hawaiian snowbush, succulents, orchids, herbs and the like. This year it seems I’ve successfully wintered a basil plant. I reflect: Who am I?

As if keeping plants alive was not enough – I began cutting the purple beast to use in flower arranging. Simple hand-tied bouquets got adorned with fresh Purple Heart clippings. I explained to customers that when the flowers died, they could remove the purple stems to root in some water. It keeps on giving. I now use it to make an exceptional cuff or edge to wedding bouquets. The plant’s nuanced green/purple foliage seems to blend seamlessly with anything its paired with. If I bring a few flowers home for myself, I’ll take a cutting from our plant at home to make a simple small arrangement. Then that cutting becomes yet another plant in our arsenal. It should be said that Purple Heart is known to be invasive in some areas, especially in warmer clients south of our temperate zone. Floridians may find it to be a persistent weed – or worse – it has the ability to take down native forests. But for us it is a happy reminder that every brown thumb has potential to do right by some houseplants.

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  • As a Floridian I can tell you that Tradescantia Pallida makes a great potted plant, especially for mixed plantings, and *especially* when few things do well here in summer. But when I see it in the ground here, I get annoyed.

    That said, I really love what you’ve done with it in your arrangements—gives me a totally new appreciation of it. I’m actually considering grabbing some for myself next time I see it! You’ve converted me.

  • Purple Heart sounds like the plant for me. I’ve managed to kill every house plant anyone has ever given me (one mini rose plant even exploded with spiders…eww). Thanks for the recommendation!

  • Coleus is another easy-to-grow plant. I’ve had a few on my work windowsill for awhile ad they just keep going. And it comes in lots of fun, splashy colors.

  • I’m loving this feature!

    I will have to get a Purple Heart. I’m awful with houseplants but my snake plant has been alive for almost three years. It must thrive on neglect. My dear husband recently asked if it was fake thinking there was no way a live plant would have lasted that long in my care.

  • Ooooo I love the bouquet fourth picture down. That subtle cool-tones palette is absolutely gorgeous. Makes me think of a winter wedding.

  • what a great post! interesting and inventive idea for bouquets or even holiday greenery. Purple heart cuttings last without water for a good while, and can still root after an extended dry spell. Your arrangements are elegant.

  • So do the purple flowers in the 2nd picture below to the same plant? Or is that another plant all together?

  • That arrangement is at the top of my “love it” totem pole! This weekly feature is my favorite-a place where humor and plants collide. Huzzah!

  • this has become my favorite feature on d*s…every week is more gorgeous. i am really in love with the bottles and beakers in this post as well. keep it coming! and thanks!

  • Hmm… I’m trying to find out whether this plant is poisonous to cats; some websites say yes and others no. So tricky! My kitty will eat any little bits of things that are on the floor, unless they are part of an official cat toy of course, so I don’t dare have any plant that will drop poisonous leaves. Cuz if it’s non-toxic, this may be just the plant I’m looking for!

  • This is FANTASTIC!!! I’m actually putting off purchasing potting material to transplant a lavendar flower my 3 year old bought off the dollar rack at Target. I really didn’t expect it to grow, and now 5 inches later, I have no idea what to do with it!!!

  • I love Weeders digest! I’m from the Netherlands and love flowers. Your arrangements truly inspirse me. I’ve visited the States recently and was shocked at the prices you pay for your flowers. I remember your “simple hydrangea arrangement” (loved it) but was shocked at how much you had to pay for the Hydrangea and the Ranunculus.
    I guess I’m lucky living here. Wish I could sent you some flowers Sarah :).

  • hi, I’ve never commented here before, but am STUNNED by the beauty of that flower in the 4th photo down- Is it an Anenome? The purple and white…
    I HAVE to know what it is!!!!please please please:)
    Stunning arrangement.

  • bre – the flowers in the second pic are actually fritillaria in a little jar next to the plants. tricky eh?

    Amber – the white flower in the bouquet 4th photo down is an anemone.

  • i just have a small question, and i will show my brown thumbed ignorance here… when is the best time to try propogating cuttings? before, during or after flowering?

  • oh dear! i tried your eggshell water remedy for an ailing plant of mine and when I came home from work today my apartment smelled/smells absolutely horrible. After some sniffing around I think it’s coming from my plant! Is my plant just feeling stinky or would it be related to my eggshell treatment? Can I get rid of the smell without getting rid of the plant? thank you for any advice you can offer…

  • @tiffany: if the plant is smelling horribly it may be the roots rotting, drain any water that is standing in the pot and leave the plant ‘dry’ for a while, sometimes they recover.

  • Its so funny that you say one lonely lil “purple heart” ( as I just now discovered my plant is) turned your brown thumb greener lol Cause thats the exact case for me as well. I had no idea what a friends dad as handing me. This pitiful, almost withered away lone stem off a plant.. I saw the hanging plant it came from. Lots of limbs and great color on both sides. From gettin it potted and babying it every so carefully I finally got it looking full and vibrant in the cute new pot I bought for it, new soil, the wole nine….lol Being gone during the summer I asked my sister and her husband ( who lived with me) to keep an eye on it, not let the soil get overly dry..well they did that, but also put it outside sometimes durin the day during the warmer months. Now I live in Oregon, the summers are nice and warm for the most part but can get cooler without much notice. I must have shocked my poor plant, because went from full and vibrant, right back to its origional wilted, near dead self. Since then I have tried to get it back thriving and to poppin out new lil sprouts from the soil around where I re-transplanted like when I first got it, but so far, nothing….any advice?