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Love at First Sight

by Melissa Serenda

I met the [botanic] love of my life around fifteen years ago, at the greenhouse of my local garden store. I always loved visiting greenhouses, with the lush leaves in all shades of green and the delicious scent of plants, earth, and fertilizer; the whirring fans and the huge variety of plants.

I had just moved into an apartment with my future husband, and was always on the lookout for new houseplants to adopt and bring home to furnish our nest. A small shelf of plants labeled “prayer plants” caught my eye, with their lovely herringbone patterns and reddish stripes. I knew very little about plants in general, although I was aware of the prayer plant’s tendency to fold up its leaves at night and thought it would be a charming friend. About to rummage around the pots to select the perfect prayer plant, I noticed a couple of pots of something else nearby. They had no label, but were colorful like the prayer plants, with silvery-green leaves and a darker green edge. There was a pinkish blush near the stem of each leaf and spreading up towards the tip, and the undersides of the leaves were a velvety maroon. The younger leaves were rolled up in cute tubes, and the mature leaves were 8”-10” tall. It was the most beautiful plant I’ve ever seen, and I didn’t think twice. I found a purple and turquoise ceramic pot to be its new home, and after paying my eight dollars for the plant, it was mine.

Unfortunately, I didn’t think to ask at the greenhouse what it was—a near-deadly mistake. I placed my “prayer plant” in the place of honor, the top shelf of my four-tiered wooden plant shelf, and stood it inside our south-facing patio doors. Sadly, it did not thrive. One by one, the leaves turned brown, dried up, and died, to be replaced by fresh new leaves that almost immediately dried up and died as well. I didn’t know what to do—I tried more water, less water, more light, repotting. Nothing made it happy. I consulted every houseplant guide at the library but none of the “prayer plants” ever looked like mine and I wasn’t sure what its care requirements were.

"before" pic

After several years of this (I am ashamed to admit it took me so long), I was ready to offer it my blood if it so desired, but realized that the first priority was to identify my finicky friend, so I could provide what it so desperately needed. Whatever that was. Many hours of internet searching—for “prayer plant” or using a physical description—led me to the lovely calatheas, a close relative of the true prayer plants. I learned they love—nay, require—high humidity and indirect light to thrive. I attempted all the tricks: misting several times a day, pebble trays, placing in clusters with other plants. The ingrate was having none of it; leaves continued to shrivel and die as soon as they grew (fortunately, it persisted in sending up new leaves constantly. The will to survive was strong in this one!).

Back to the drawing board. I was responsible for the li’l guy’s well-being, and I was on a mission. I would make my plant happy, no matter the cost. I decided the only way to get the humidity high enough for its satisfaction was a terrarium. One week, hours of research and $80 later, I had the plant installed in a 29-gallon tall fish tank of its very own. It was moved to a room with north- and east-facing windows, and monitored with a hygrometer to maintain humidity of at least 70%. It took time, but the calathea came to enjoy life again.

More leaves grew; they did not turn brown and dry out as they once did (at least, not nearly as often. It still tends to drop leaves almost as quickly as new leaves grow). I gradually added more plants to the terrarium to keep it company, and later a larger terrarium to give them all some space. Someday I shall have a larger greenhouse to keep the calathea and others happy and healthy, where I can sit and read, and listen to the whisper of their leaves in the breeze and breathe in the moist air that offers them a small taste of their tropical home among the Iowa cornfields.

"after" pic

To think of all the time and money I have spent on this one eight-dollar plant…I don’t regret it one bit. It taught me that people don’t naturally have green thumbs or brown thumbs; they either take the time to learn about their plants and each one’s needs (and then supply them with what they want), or they don’t.

Melissa is an Iowa inhabitant, who enjoys spending time on local trails and greenways, photographing bugs and flowers. Huge fan of Ratibida pinnata.

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