C.W. Gusewell


Predatory plants: Is that a reach?

My wife’s flower room doubles as my home office, which is a bit like saying a bathroom might double as a kitchen.

Some improvisations just don’t quite work.

The 11 potted peppers, the two Christmas cacti, the airplane plants with their hanging shoots and the plump Boston fern all occupy a baker’s rack against the large windows at the room’s south end.

They share their perch there with a fuzz-covered ceramic rabbit, two carved birds – a pintail duck and a wren perched on a cattail stem – a pink ceramic piggy bank and several trays of stones and seashells gathered on past travels.

The winter sun streams through all that foliage, painting the whole end of the room a luminous green.

In the smaller window to one side there’s a hanging basket and a different grassy plant with dangling runners. And next to that the towering 4-foot blades of a mother-in-law’s tongue – a native of West Africa whose strong fibers once were used to make strings for hunters’ bows.

None of these I’ve mentioned can be described as in any way territorial. I’ve saved for last the discussion of three troublemakers about which the same can’t be said.

One problem has been the beefsteak begonia, which expanded so aggressively that its tangle of stalks and fleshy leaves prevented the opening of my file cabinet and gave concern that entry to the office might eventually be blocked altogether.

Another miscreant is the so-called asparagus fern – which isn’t a fern at all, but a peculiar member of the lily family.

At a distance of some six or eight steps from my desk, its 7-foot trailing fronds with their pale, tiny leaves look as gauzy as a bridal veil. But looks are deceiving.

In fact, the thing is predatory .

Above it and to the side is a relic of a long-ago adventure – the skull and horns of an antelope called a hartebeest, brought home from Africa in the 1960s. A straw hat, decorated with bright fishing lures, hangs on one of the horns.

For whatever reason, perhaps the seeking of nourishment, several stems of the asparagus fern have reached out laterally to grasp and surround the hat, as a spider might envelop its prey. Something about that is oddly troubling.

Spookier still are the two night-blooming cereuses, also called “orchid cactuses.” One is hardly more than an infant, propagated simply by poking a leaf in a pot of sandy soil.

Its parent plant, given to me by a friend 40 years or more ago, once achieved such size that it reached nearly to the ceiling light fixtures, entwining itself in the slatted blinds, then forcing tendrils through the narrow cracks of the window louvers as if seeking escape into the outdoors.

The cereus usually flowers just once a year, always in the night. By daybreak its large blossoms have withered and fallen. Sometimes we stayed awake to watch the event.

Eventually, though, unnerved by its size and vigor, my wife cut it back almost to the earth in the pot. That’s how I remembered it, severely cropped.

But one day not long ago I looked again and saw that it had grown robust once more and is reaching … reaching. It made me a bit uneasy.

When I was a boy, my mother used to raise African violets, civil plants that lived happily on counters and window sills.

And never can I remember any argument over how we’d share the space.