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Greene: Tropical Dreams

02/21/11 5:55PM By Stephanie Greene
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(HOST)  Commentator Stephanie Greene notes that, while tending to tropical plants gets her through the winter, it's not without its challenges...

(GREENE) I have a photo from a vacation in Chiapas, Mexico of me standing among the roots of an enormous Montezuma Cypress. The tree is host to enough wild orchids, staghorn ferns, philodendra and other exotics growing from crevices in its bark to fill a florist shop. Seventy five feet up in the canopy, parrots and macaws flash their brilliant plumage as they flit through the branches. In the picture, I look very pale and tentative, overawed by all this casual fecundity, a miniature Edward Gorey figure who suspects but doesn't see the giant hammer about to descend.

We all know that hammer as winter in Vermont. Undeniably character building, this year's parade of snowstorms has provided us all with lots of invigorating exercise. We shovel snow, rake roofs, and climb up ladders with pathetic jugs of warm water to melt the roof ice dams that have created spectacular indoor waterfalls.
It's about time for a winter antidote, don't you think?

Perusing plant catalogs, I am drawn to the most tropical of plants. When I'm in this mood, rhubarb and lichen just don't make it. I want giant canna lilies, luxurious dahlias and black bamboo.

Well, it's moot anyway, because the bamboo I've seen in catalogs never do well below zone 5. I have enough heartbreak every year rooting for the Red Sox. I don't need dead bamboo on my conscience.

We live on a mountain whose real growing zone is a 4. With maps in hand, nursery advisers have disputed this many times, but they don't have to go into my garden in the spring and contemplate all the zone 5 plants that couldn't pull through the winter.   The sad stick that was once my gorgeous, deep purple butterfly bush, the giant hibiscus that doesn't come out of its winter coma until the end of June - and returns to it, in bud, in late September - these are only two of my casualties.

So, bring the plants inside. Create your own little jungle. It's a bit tricky with a wood burning stove. Your new hobbies will be misting your plants, and keeping the kettle full, which will claim about an hour a day. But it's a small price to pay; you are, after all, dragging spring north one plant at a time.

I have learned, through the kind coaching of our local florist, how to keep orchids alive. They're a lot tougher than they look, thank goodness.

Our staghorn fern is not so lucky. It was a generous gift from a talented gardening friend, but it now has vastly diminished expectations. Through a series of mishaps, its leaves have shriveled, even with my periodic attempts to do something nice for it. My gardening friend, has some comfort for me, though: "You never really know a plant," she intones, "Until you have killed it three times."
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