Notes From the Lawn

The Heirloom Ficus

When a loved one’s houseplants are divided up, what you get isn’t a condition of your standing as a relative, but of your ability as a gardener. Our writer has a story of memory and maintenance, and the discovery of a special bond.

Some bequeath parrots; my grandmother bequeathed houseplants. And we took them, my father, aunt, and I, because we loved my grandmother and the things she had loved in life were plants. Her house was full of them, her garden extensive. All you had to do was watch her one morning sitting over her coffee, one hand turning the pages of a newspaper, the other stroking the drooping branches of the Norfolk pine she allowed to reach over her chair like a bower, and you would understand that these were not plants that could just be abandoned when she was gone. So they were distributed—the Norfolk pine, the schefflera, the jasmine, the night-blooming cereus. There were others, many others I don’t know the names of, so many that their seasonal movements in and out of the house looked like a green migration. We took these plants (in my case, one was assigned) and pledged to care for them. At least, I pledged. I think the others did. There was no official ceremony.

I was 23 when this responsibility came to me and I had no reason to believe I could handle it. My horticultural history so far included drowning a series of African violets on my childhood windowsill, ignoring a large red geranium, and, every autumn, neglecting a small bed of chrysanthemums by the garage. (That these bloomed at all can be attributed not to any care from me, but to their proximity to my father’s compost pile.)

After college I moved to New York, and it was while I was living in the city that my grandmother died, my love of the place baffling her until the end. After my big move we walked together in the woods near her house, and I tried to explain the beauty I saw in buildings, the way the late afternoon sunlight caught their facades and burnished them gold. She lifted her arms and appealed to the trees. “Look,” she said. “Green mansions!” Always one to cite her sources, she admitted it was the title of a book she’d read as a child. Not a very good book, she said, but she’d always liked the title.

When the plants from her house and garden were distributed, the most impressive specimens went to my aunt—her daughter—who had a greenhouse in Connecticut. My father took others, but his modest residential garden in Michigan didn’t allow for anything too tricky. I was living in a studio apartment on the Upper West Side, a little place with a charming view of masonry. I had no direct sunlight, a fact I concealed from my family, and yet they still gave me my grandmother’s most mundane plant, a ficus.

Afterward, the plant stood about three and a half feet high and looked like a potted slingshot. I saw it as a test.

Potted, my ficus was as tall as I was, five feet eight and distinguished in that it had a smooth, straight trunk about an inch and a half in diameter. It was not, in other words, one of those circus plants widely available to college students every fall, three stems twined into one to make the plant look bushier. There are over 600 species of ficus, however, and I have no idea which it was. All I can say is that when it arrived in my apartment, it was healthy, vibrant, its dark green leaves running in pairs along each branch. I had seen my grandmother mist her indoor plants with a water bottle, so I bought one of these. For some reason I did not buy a watering can.

From the beginning I was confused by its needs. After every watering, with my kitchen measuring cup, it dropped a few leaves. Then a few more would turn yellow and drop a few days later, as if not willing to let go of the argument. I blamed the city water and bought a Brita. No better. The branches began to look like accordions that had seen better days. I’d hold off for a week or two until finally it seemed the ficus must be parched, until my own mouth dried up just looking at it. I knew it missed my grandmother, but it had to drink, didn’t it? Finally, on a Saturday morning, I would give it half a cup, and then the two of us would pass a silent, miserable weekend.

One night that first year I was watching late-night television, the stand-up comedian Steven Wright on stage somewhere in the city. “I like to tease my plants when I water them,” he said. “I water them with ice cubes.” I stared at my ficus, humorless, in the corner, then laughed until I cried.

The next morning, to make amends, I dusted its leaves, but I still felt ruthless.

I’m certain my ficus would have died in New York if I hadn’t gotten married and moved to a sunny apartment in Washington, D.C. There the invalid was rehabilitated, at least until our new kitten started digging holes in its pot. This indignity—and it was not lost on me that my grandmother had disliked cats—drove it into another funk. But once again the plant was saved by a change of scenery. My husband and I moved to London, necessitating a great shift of property. The cat went to my parents, the ficus went to my mother-in-law, and we arrived in London with a few large suitcases, nothing more.

Life was so simple again! Nothing to feed, mist, fertilize, or water. Unfortunately, when we moved back to the States a few years later, my mother-in-law gave the ficus back before I even asked for it. “I know how much it means to you,” she said, and I nodded. I suspected she’d had a hard time with it, too.

She’d taken good care of it, though, even repotted it. But the larger pot made transporting the ficus from her home to ours unexpectedly difficult and, in transit, the ficus sustained an injury that resulted in the loss of most of its central stem. Afterward, the plant stood about three and a half feet high and looked like a potted slingshot. I gave it water and fertilizer, but couldn’t help viewing it mostly as a depressing heirloom marring an otherwise lovely corner of the kitchen.

Everywhere else the garden was in chaos: The peonies collapsed, the phlox turned moldy, the chrysanthemums grew leggy. By this time, though, I had other concerns. I’d visited my aunt in Connecticut, seen the now towering Norfolk pine thriving in the atrium of her home, and realized how far I’d fallen. In addition, my husband and I were buying our first house. Suddenly we owned trees, hedges, a mammoth rhododendron, and a rather unruly clump of what one neighbor reverently referred to as an “old” hydrangea. I spent several months eyeing it all from inside the house, then decided to get to work. I hadn’t achieved much in the care of one of my grandmother’s houseplants, but I vowed to do better outside. We would have day lilies and phlox and coral bells, all of which I remembered from her garden. There would be no red because she had detested red flowers. Primroses were a must, as were many spring bulbs: crocus, daffodil, tulip, snowdrop.

Unfortunately, it quickly became apparent that I have no eye for grouping plants. My beds looked like an elementary school project gone awry, not the English cottage garden I’d envisioned. Some of the plants survived, many failed, the old hydrangea among them. I’d transplanted it, and its great mass of pale, dead stalks was now one of the last things visible in the garden after dusk, a golden glow from the back corner that was pretty if you didn’t think about what it was. The neighbor who had loved it began to avoid me.

One of my only successes was a modest, pale hybrid rose called the Pink Fairy that seemed to be thriving along our side picket fence. Every morning I peeked at it from the living room windows and marveled at its cheerful good health. Everywhere else the garden was in chaos: The peonies collapsed, the phlox turned moldy, the chrysanthemums grew leggy. No one had told me about “pinch pruning,” the counterintuitive and somewhat alarming idea that something should be stunted in order to flourish. By the end of the first year, I was humbled and tired and my hands, though as dry and chafed as I remember my grandmother’s, were not as warm and strong.

I was beginning to think about hardscaping, wondering just how much of the garden could be paved—water features suddenly appealed to me—when I happened to spend a few days at my grandmother’s house with my family. Looking through her gardening books, I came across some notes she’d made about a rose she was very taken with—a modest, pale hybrid called the Pink Fairy. I ran my finger over my grandmother’s wobbly, blue ballpoint handwriting, and felt I knew her again.

One sunny morning a few months later I carried my ficus out to the back shed. In the most official sort of ceremony I could muster, I stroked its sickly, intermittent leaves and said a few things about the years we’d spent together. I apologized for the way things had turned out, then I went at it with a pair of pruning shears. It’s true the wood chipper scene from Fargo was running through my mind, but I believe my grandmother would have approved. Every piece went on the compost pile, which would fertilize my sweet pink roses in the spring.

There was one houseplant not distributed for care after my grandmother died. A jade plant still lives in the kitchen windowsill of her house and inexplicably survives all year without water. My family arrives for vacation every August, just as we did when my grandmother was alive, and there it sits, tired, thirsty, a little bit dusty, just waiting to greet us.


TMN Contributing Writer Jessica Francis Kane’s first novel, The Report (Graywolf Press, 2010) was shortlisted for the Flaherty-Dunnan First Novel Prize and was a Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers selection. Her story collection, This Close (Graywolf Press, 2013) was long-listed for the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award and the Story Prize and was named a Best Book of the year by NPR. She lives in New York with her husband and their two children. More by Jessica Francis Kane