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March 20, 2011

Mean Green Mother in My Living Room

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By Elaine Viets

In 1990, Don and I bought a house in St. Louis with a new furnace in the basement and a six-foot ficus in the living room. I’d read that ficus benjamina were delicate once you dragged them indoors away from their natural tropical environment. They sickened with mites, mealy bugs and aphids. They hated to be moved. Plant guides said a ficus should be fed, watered, misted and treated like an arboreal invalid.

Silk ficus
I didn’t have time for that. I dumped water on the tree once a week. The ficus grew into the centerpiece of our drafty living room. All I had to do was pick up a few dropped leaves. I liked a real ficus better than a silk one. It was easier to water a six-foot plant than dust it.

Four years later, Don and I moved from St. Louis to Capitol Hill. By now, the ficus was a family member. Large, quiet and comforting, the ficus never got drunk. It didn’t gossip or discuss politics. It silently changed carbon dioxide into oxygen, filtered out poisons in the household air, and grew bigger. I was determined to take it with me.

"Listen, lady," the mover said, "I’m not hauling a seven-foot tree to Washington. It’s August. It won’t make the 800-mile trip."

"Please," I begged. "It’s a tough tree. If the ficus dies, it will be my fault. I won’t say anything."

The mover agreed. He told me to tie the branches tight with twine to reduce the tree’s width, douse it with water, and wrap it in plastic.

The tree made it. It looked lousy and dropped most of its leaves. But after more slipshod care – water and a dose of fertilizer – it recovered. Soon it spread its green, leafy branches over my livingroom, creating more shady Washington dealings. The ficus was nearly eight feet tall. I transplanted the ficus to bigger pot.

Midsized ficus 

In 1997, Don and I moved to Florida. Once again, the mover grumbled about carting the ficus down the east coast, but I insisted.

Our first Fort Lauderdale apartment was a third-floor walkup with a fine view. I pitied the sweating mover who hauled that tree up three flights. He cursed it all the way. "Down here we trim these things with Weed Wackers," he said. "We don’t stick them in living rooms."Weed wacker

"This is a rare Missouri ficus," I said and tipped the poor sap fifty bucks. He left feeling more kindly toward ficus trees.

The ficus dropped leaves after that move, but it soon thrived in the Florida sun shining through the tall windows. A year later, we bought a condo on the beach. The eight-foot-plus ficus went with us. It was too big to fit in our new living room, so we put the tree outside on the balcony.

DSCN0005_0002 The ficus did not enjoy the return to nature. It drooped in the burning beach sun. The incessant ocean breeze stripped off tender leaves. The sea salt browned the survivors. The ficus quit growing. Its top branches were bare.

But it refused to die.

When we moved to a bigger condo in Fort Lauderdale, a leaner, meaner ficus went with us. Now it was a mere six feet, with gaping holes in its foliage where I’d cut away dead branches.

The ficus perked up once it was indoors in our new living room. While workers painted and repaired the condo, the ficus recuperated. When we finally settled in, the ficus was once more bushy.

It’s lived happily by the window, except for one mishap. Our cat, Harry, climbed the tree at 5 o’clock one morning. The ficus crashed to the floor, knocking over an end table and a clock. Don and I rushed into the room, certain burglars had broken down the door. Instead we found an overturned tree and a terrified cat.

After that, I used Museum Wax, a product yachts and museums use to keep art in place. The ficus had stayed rooted to the spot, growing burlier by the day.

This morning, I measured it. The ficus hits the ceiling at seven feet. It’s six feet wide. It needs a new pot, but I’m not sure how Don and I can transplant this monster.

I’d leave it alone, but I’m afraid.                                                                                  Future ficus

A Missouri ficus thrives on neglect.



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Elaine, I love your brave and loyal ficus..or the ficus that would not die.
My DH and I took in a fake ficus. We did not tell him that he was not the real thing. We just dusted and polished up his leaves and there he stood in the corner. He never felt that he was being punished but dutifully stood there hoping for attention. Once we tried to decorate him with Christmas lights but he would have none of it.
The only competition he had was a souvenir cactus magnet that clung to our refrigerator for two years. I shot water into the container and being in a dry climate the cactus survived. It liked its container so much that it would not grow. The kitchen aromas wafted over him and he seem to thrive until one day he finally turned an ugly shade of brown and died. My DH said that I was the only person that he met who could kill a cactus. Somehow a fake cactus doesn't cut it so I will have to bring something else into the house to kill.

I had an ornamental corn plant, appropriately named Cornelius, for years. Moved it from apartment to house, from single to married to divorced and a move to the big city. It was a move to a basement apartment that was the doom of poor Cornelius, Vancouver is a damp city, basement suites even damper. Poor old Cornie was over 6 feet tall when the soil mould got him. He got taken out with the trash, never to be seen again . . .

I have no plants now, real or fake, I am impressed with your ficus loyalty Elaine and hope you never move homes again, you might have to tip the movers even more money!

Cool story, Elaine! Think of how great your monster is for your carbon footprint!

St. Louis beguine neglect. We are good at it.

Since I'm driving a 1986 car, Kathy,I have large carbon feet. We'll have to let the ficus get bigger, I guess.
Gaylin, condolences on Cornelius. Plants are hostages to our lives.
Marie, I've killed a cactus, too -- from overwatering.

I tried growing Venus Flytraps one year. The dog ate them.

Marie said it: The ficus that would not die!

I have a croton an old boyfriend gave me, 35 years ago, still living and thriving. When he gave it to me I wondered where on earth I would put it, it was huge, 18" tall and about that same width. It was prone to spider mites, so periodically I had to wipe the plant down with a cloth moistened with rubbing alcohol.

Higher moisture turned out to be the key to controlling the mites, and a heavy, once-a-week watering. Now that little plant really IS huge, and dominates the end of the living room, hogging an entire window area, at a whopping 7' tall and 5' wide. The last time I transplanted it I had to put it on wheels, and in the summertime now I haul it outside, where the birds pick off any mites. Aha!

That plant has been in my life longer than almost every non-family relationship I've had. Who knew? I may have to appoint a guardian for it in my will.

http://tiny.cc/o21qw for more on crotons. I have several different kinds, including another one that has grown by feet.

Mary Storyteller also has crotons! Another way she and I are twins. :-)

Why am I looking at this picture of the Ficus That Wouldn't Die and hearing the theme from 'Jaws'????

Judith, at least the Venus Flytrap didn't eat the dog.
I'm hearing scary music, too, William.
Mary and Karen, I have a croton living at the other end of the living room. A very small croton. I hope it stays that way,

Reminds me of the snake plant I've written about elsewhere. It arrived in a dish garden someone sent me. It was only 3" tall, but so determined that it lived on after the other plants died. By the time I finally found someone who would take it home with her, it was almost 6' tall and crowded into a pot 2' wide. Who knew that snake plants bloomed? Who knew they wouldn't die from neglect or from over-watering?

We have an enduring schleffera (I think, although it is variegated) that came from work about 15 years ago. The plant lady offered it up for adoption...otherwise it would have become mulch. Thankfully the little guy hasn't grown too wide or tall, but that could be genetic. It is currently residing in the dining room, claiming a good sunny spot at the window there, but will migrate to the porch come "real" Spring. We've had plants aplenty over the years, but once they get too large for me to move indoors in the winter, Chuck gets the job...and forgets. He's managed to lose a few to frost, although his favorites, the succulents, ALWAYS make it indoors. Which reminds me...I need to go water them :o)

Elaine, those suckers sneak up on you, is all I'm saying.

I love this story and I love your ficus! This devil knows it's loved. Just goes to show - you don't need to smother what you love with a lot of unnecessary, unwanted attention. Just let it know you love it and it will thrive

I had 4 palm trees when I was in my Sheena Queen of the Jungle mode.Two were next to my leopard sheeted bed on the night stands and the rotator 2 were outside the window.
Very tropical.
One night I awoke in a panic when one fell across me in the bed. Talk about a heart attack.
They all moved outside and are now lounging and firmly rooted through their pots soaring skyward above the roof.
Better than a dead horse head I say.

I can kill almost anything, but I have one plant that was in my great-grandfather's house that has managed to survive my grandmother, my mother, and now me. It is leggy and arthritic looking, and I don't even know what kind of plant it is (maybe a rubber plant?). I water it once a week if we're in town. I don't know what our house sitter does when we're away. I'm afraid it might die if I give it any more attention. I can't be the one who kills it, I'm leaving that for the next generation.

Usually when i bring a plant into the house I hear the distant refrains of the song "DIE, DIE MY DARLING" and then a faint cackle from the cat standing in the doorway.

My mother-in-law had a ficus. She adored that thing. People sent flowers after she died. The flowers had nasty bugs that killed the ficus. It was kind of sad. It's nice to hear about your tree's will to live.

Amy, I think the ficus died of a broken heart.

You and Don can give me a call when you want to remove the beastie to an undisclosed location. I've never ghostbusted, but I did see 3 minutes of "Day of the Triffids."

Elaine, I think you could safely prune back just a bit of the plant. . .
Plants are welcome here as long as they aren't too demanding. I water once a week (just a sip for the Christmas cactus and jade plants).
The citrus the great-nephews planted after breakfast years ago goes outside every summer because it grows better that way. It lost some leaves in the move to the house, but is still alive and growing. It's joined by the three pineapple plants (did you know you can plant the tops of pineapples?) and a sad little plumaria. Swedish ivy will grow lush outdoors, too, if the squirrels let it.
The croton has dropped many leaves, so I am now trying to root the top of one leggy branch (sphagnum moss over a little cut, covered with plastic and kept moist) so I can replant it. I'd just replace it, but it was a gift, so worth preserving the original.

I have a black rotting undead befanged thumb. Plants see me coming and PRE-die to save themselves the trouble...

My ficus is the only plant I haven't killed. I water it once a week, and it just keeps on keeping on. I live in a studio, and it's taking up significant square yardage. Love the picutures.

Hmm, Joshilyn, an instructor at the Missouri Botanical Garden told me that the key to gardening is "find something you can't kill." Keep searching. Maybe a nice philodendron. They're almost plastic.
Lil, my ficus must never meet yours. They could take over the country.

This is a very funny post, and so are the comments.

But Storyteller Mary, I fear for your safety, after you've said: "Elaine, I think you could safely prune back just a bit of the plant. . ." It opened its eyes and, yes, it is looking your way.

Elaine has proved today that plants are not necessarily easier than pets.

Nancy P. I am always worried when any hobby has the disclaimer "Be afraid..be very afraid".
I am still reeling from the Topsy Turvy Tomato family competition held last year
It almost became a reality show when all the stops were go and everyone lied through their teeth about how many tomatoes were being yielded from the plants.
Finally, all the tallies were in and out of three families three tomatoes were edible and two were rotten and of course none showed up at my house.

I also managed to kill a fern, a feat I know. Maybe it was because I called it Jules Fern.

A few blocks from my apartment there is a house with an amazing garden, up until last year you could walk there and for $1.50 get a bunch of fresh picked flowers, you put the money in an honour box. I loved it. Everyone called her the Flower Lady. She died late last spring, she was 90. Her family kept up the flower sales (more or less) last summer. Don't know if they will this summer. I loved walking home with my bunch of flowers, stems wrapped in elastic, people would nod and smile because they knew they were from the Flower Lady's house.

That is (was) the only time I have flowers in the house.

Marie, gardeners and fishermen, gardeners and fishermen.

I'm a pretty good gardener, but my mother is just quantum leaps better than any gardener I've ever met AND she does it via the Benign Neglect school of gardening. Every house she has lived in over her almost 83 years has looked a hell of a lot better after she left it due to the flowers and shrubs and trees.

When I has a kid, Mom stuck a green branch from a maple tree into a corner of our yard to mark where she wanted to plant some roses. A few days later, she noticed leef buds on the stick, so she watered it. In a month, it had little branches and more leaves. Today, that stick is a 60-70 foot tall healthy maple tree.

I've often told my mom that she should let us bury her, instead of cremation, because I think she's sprout a Mom Tree.

What a sweet story about your mom, Doc.

When we moved into our house 26 years ago there was a massive, and already old tulip tree way too close to the house. I'd never seen that variety before, and I just loved being able to see the exotic lime green and orange sherbet tulips when they bloomed in the spring from the upstairs windows. When we added onto the house, 12 years ago, the tree guys came out and took it down, leaving a basement-sized hole that was perfect for the addition.

I mourned that gracious old tree, but the following spring I noticed two offspring, way out in a garden bed on the other side of the yard, perfect for that spot. They were too close together, but I made Steve leave them there. Good thing I did; deer nibbled one and weakened it, then a bad storm finished it off. The remaining one now has that bed all to itself and it is healthy, strong, and about 25 feet tall now. I do love volunteers in the garden. :-)

My mom has an amazing yard, she says she has an outdoor green thumb. Her inside plants are now all silk. She likes to tell people that the only thing holding up the fence in her back yard is the ivy. You can no longer see the fence boards. She can name all the plants in latin and gets upset if something withers. I think I will tell her what Doc said, see if we can plant a Mom Tree!

Aw, Doc. A Mom Tree. That's darling. Maybe she's a Druid.

Two plants you can't kill and will keep on keeping on...1) zuccini

By the time people start running when they see you coming, you will planticide formost in your mind.

What a lovely story, Doc.
Karen, tulip trees are amazing. I'm just glad they don't grow inside.

Doc, that is a lovely tribute to your Mom.

I think your ficus is my new hero, Elaine.

Totally brilliant post.

Love your ficus story, Elaine.

A few years ago I volunteered to adopt the 6 ft. tall Dracaena Marginata that was getting too large to fit in our smallish local library.( Previously it had outgrown a lady's sunroom before she donated it to the library.) It took my husband and a well-muscled friend, along with a dolly and a pickup, to transport it to our home office, which has cathedral ceilings and lots of light.

I named it Rita, because we kept saying "Dracena Margarita" before we knew it was commonly called Madagascar Dragon Tree. Well, with weekly waterings and the occasional misting, Rita is now over 8 ft. tall & just last week sprouted another new baby!

This is quite an accomplishment for a person like me, formerly having a brown thumb with houseplants! That's also the reason why I, like Storyteller Mary, discovered the beauty and ease of growing pineapple plants in the past few decades. Once established, those things become the plants-who-will-NOT-die!

Elaine, you're probably right.

Joshilyn, I think we were separated at birth. And my dad was a botanist!

There is a good tip in this story-if you have cats, it will save your sanity to museum gel everything breakable down.
We go through tubs of the stuff on the boat. I never thought about it for non-wavy homes.
Funny post.

Victoria Allman
author of: SEAsoned: A Chef's Journey With Her Captain


Gaylin, ferns are touchy plants, needing misting and such (a friend calls them a bad name only properly used to designate female dogs). There is no room for ferns here.
Doc, I love the mom tree idea.
Elaine, I'm not afraid of your ficus. In fact, if you ever do prune it, please bring or send a clipping to me. It sounds like my kind of plant, and it should have offspring here in Missouri to continue the line. I've also moved plants long distance -- I did manage to convince the movers to bring my plants from Minnesota, and they did survive.
Oh -- and you'd all like to know, I'm sure, that I got to sing "The Name Game" to a packed audience at the Rep's Beehive! ;-)

Oh, Elaine, you inspire me!

Tell us, do you talk to Ficus Benjamina? Sing to him? Read aloud from your manuscripts?

. . . and then there was the aloe vera plant, growing so happily when I realized I was allergic to it. I moved it outside and told it to find a new home before winter, which it did. I overheard the roofer telling his son that they had once had one almost as big, but didn't have room to bring it when they moved. He was happy to adopt mine!

We saw a lovely tree outside the Rep, and a woman nearby told us it was a star magnolia.

A friend told me their houseplants grew better when the teens left home -- classical instead of rock . . . .

My ficus is about six feet tall, started as a mere foot high stem 35 years ago. I love it and will always take it with me. It has survived everything from new love affairs (who has time to water the plants?) to being peed on by my tomcat. If you can't repot it, take out as much of the old soil as you can and replace w/new. The root system is fairly small, so a new pot may not be necessry.

Yeah, someone told me ficus' are fragil. Heh.

The Chinese belief stands if there is living thing in your home, the people also will still be living and you will have a prosperous life. No wonder that you can almost see chinese people have these in their homes.

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