Root Causes

How to save a plant

Some people got green thumbs. Mine should have a skull and crossbones on it.

It don’t matter what it is: African violet, begonia, Easter lily or what, and whether I set them by a window with Southern exposure or shine artificial plant lights on them, or how I water them, in a week they’ve dropped their little leaves and withered away to plant heaven.

I am the Grim Reaper of potted plants.

And still, people give them to me for presents. Instead of, say, wine. I can take care of wine.

Last year my daughter Gladiola gave me a poinsettia for Christmas. I watered it every single day and it was still gorgeous at New Year’s. And then it disappeared. Pot and all. I asked Gladiola if she seen it. “I put it in the attic with the other decorations,” she said. It turns out it was silk.

This curse even includes plants in my yard. When we lived in Chalmette, whatever I planted in front – azaleas, daffodils, petunias – they immediately disintegrated into blackened sticks. I finally started sticking plastic daisies in the weeds that grew close to the house. People actually gave me compliments on that. Mostly little old ladies with cataracts. But still …

After Katrina, when I moved to this apartment, at least I didn’t have no garden to disgrace me. Everything has an upside.

I have a little balcony and sometimes I hang plastic Carnival beads from the railing. I am good with plastic.

Now, my mother-in-law, Ms. Larda, is like Mother Theresa with plants. You bring her a dying geranium – I’m talking a geranium on life support – and she showers it with affection and Miracle-Gro and talks to it and don’t let the cat eat it, and in 24 hours it’s glowing with health.

So when Ms. Larda went to visit Aunt Lysolla, why did she put me in charge of her precious ivy plant? This plant sits in the middle of her coffee table and spreads out all over the sides, like Ursula the octopus in The Little Mermaid. It is the centerpiece of her house, if you don’t count the fridge.

She says if for some reason I can’t get there, call up my brothers-in-laws Leech and Lurch, who live and lounge on the other side of her double; stay on the phone and talk them through watering it: half a cup, no more, sprinkled around the edges of the pot.

Well, I come down with the flu. So I call up Leech, and I stay on the phone while he walks over there – I can hear his big feet thumping and the water sloshing.

Turns out those are sound effects. What he did was turn down the TV, thump his feet on the floor and swish his beer in his glass.

Which I find out in a week, when I’m well enough to go there and find Ursula dead as a doorknob. Her tentacles are dangling off the table, her leaves are limp and her soil is dry as the Sahara.

Leech just says calm down, he’ll get another ivy plant; there’s a bunch of it growing out back, trust him.

I got no choice. Ms. Larda gets back tomorrow.

I pick her up at the airport, since the boys are at work, and bring her home. We drag her bags inside and she immediately looks over at the coffee table, at this huge new ivy plant and she frowns. I say “Want me to water it?” She screeches, “No! Don’t touch it! Get away!”

Which is an overreaction, I think. Until she points out, in a loud voice, that this ain’t Ursula; this is poison ivy.

So I have to confess what happened; and when Leech comes home, he has to haul the poison ivy outside, because it so happens he ain’t allergic to it. And he also didn’t recognize it when he pulled it off the tree out back.

And Ursula? Ms. Larda snatches her off the trash heap, cradles her in her arms and rushes her inside. And believe it or not, over the next few days she brings Ursula back to life. Once more, Ursula reigns over the coffee table.

Now Ms. Larda calls Ursula her Easter plant, because it rose again.

Of course, if Ursula was plastic, she would’ve been immortal to start with. But it’s probably better not to say that out loud. So I don’t.


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