I do not have a green thumb. I grew up in a very rural area of Kansas on 400 acres of grasses and crops and cows and mulberry trees. The last thing I want to do is grow something. (There was a jolly woman, a friend of my mothers, long since gone. Her name was Dorothy Wiscombe and she was a bleached blond, chain-smoking, over-weight, part-time lounge singer in Topeka. I adored her. I thought of her for the first time in thirty years because she once quipped she was so bad with plants that the plastic vine in her kitchen was losing leaves.) Dylan asked, “Where have all the flowers gone?” I would ask, “Where have all the ferns gone?” I reflect back on my days in NYC and remain, to this day, properly chauvinistic. I’ve observed, during frequent travels away from the city, whatever happened in NYC would, sooner or later, crop up everywhere else, creating universality to most crazes. In the 70’s, for example, the de rigueur restaurant style featured brass, wood, faux Tiffany lamps, and plants: hanging, standing, potted. Ferns were as rampant as kudzu. You needed a machete to reach a table. Not only in restaurants, but lobbies, offices, and waiting rooms were decorated with all manner of flora. Apartments had ferns atop radiators, on end tables and, particularly, hanging in bathrooms as the moisture from steaming showers was good for them. Didn’t matter, they always dried and died, shedding little thyme-like browned and crispy leaves that crunched under your bare feet.
Avocados were a good starter plant for young and poor because you ate them first and then put toothpicks in the sides of the seed, placing your mini Sputnik in a glass with its butt touching water. You had to keep the water level up and get it right end up if it was to sprout. If all went well, in a couple of weeks you’d get a shoot and a tiny leaf. Those who did have green thumbs could get it to bush out. I couldn’t cultivate mine beyond the stick phase, though my seeds would generate copious, albino roots in their slimy water. Jade plants were fairly fail-safe. You could get a cutting from a friend with a mother ship plant, gently transport it home in a damp napkin, and put it in a glass of water until it sprouted roots. Then you’d have to buy dirt and plant the cutting. Cacti were the felines of the plant world: aloof. Fichus trees were a bit more serious in terms of investment, space, and horticulture. The good news was they took a long time to die, but at least you kind of got your money’s worth. My one and only success was a “mother-in-laws tongue” I inherited from a theatrical producer who closed up shop. Unlike the plays she produced, it had eternal life. In its shoe-sized ceramic, it fit perfectly on various apartment window sills reaping light from narrow shafts. Like some of my lovers, it thrived on neglect. It didn’t really grow much bigger during the time I had it, its long bayonet leaves staying happily stunted in the nubby green pot. I had it for 20 years until I left the city.
Part of the attraction of house plants was to bring the outside in. Particularly, in New York, and specifically, in the 70’s, when the city was filthy and sooty and air quality so wretched it was not healthy to be outside for long periods. When you got back to your apartment, your indoor plants gave the impression of having filtered the air and were visually soothing. Given the city is cleaner and greener now, and allowing for my theory of what happens in New York doesn’t stay in New York, I am willing to bet there are less house plants per capita than there were in the 70’s. Nowadays, you just don’t see that many indoor plants, is my point. I never see a fern.
Another anomaly. Where’ve all the shrinks gone? We all had those, too. Maybe they’ve become massage therapists.