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Front Porch: Thriving plant has hardy soul

My first plant died in a matter of months. As a young college student I thought some fresh foliage would add adult ambiance to our tiny apartment. Then the plant succumbed to its sporadic watering schedule.

Unlike a cat or dog, plants don’t make audible noises when they’re thirsty, and my eye wasn’t attuned to limp leaves or crunchy soil.

When the leaves changed color, even though it wasn’t fall, my revival efforts were too late, or too much. Turning a pot into a miniature swamp doesn’t help, I learned. Well, unless you want to grow a mold colony.

This didn’t stop me from trying again. And again. Although my thumb never turned green, eventually I found and fostered a few resilient plants. Still, my two-year indoor foliage survival rate is about 50 percent.

If a plant makes it six months under my care, I consider it a friend, accepting me as I am, with all my failings. I’m a forgetful fertilizer, for example. While I’m good with outdoor plants and have a lovely lawn and garden, I’m forgetful with the inside vegetation.

My houseplants must adapt to a rugged life of inconsistent care, or die. If they live, I reward them with occasional loving glances and whatever water isn’t downed by my family during dinner.

Today, I have three plants that just passed the seven month mark, so I’m hopeful they’ll bump my sad statistic higher, perhaps passing the marriage survival rate. I want this especially for the plant I named Evelyn.

Last summer at a girls’ night, my friend Beth brought a bevy of plants to adopt out. She was moving to Chicago and didn’t want to transport her horticultural horde across the country in her car. I couldn’t blame her. Some of my previous plants hadn’t survived moves across town.

So I selected two plants that matched vegetation I already owned, foliage that had survived eight years, my cubicle desk days and an at-home office environment that includes wintertime blasts of hot air from the gas fireplace.

While fingering the fresh leaves on Beth’s green gifts, I hoped hardiness was a genetic trait and not evidence of plant personality.

Then Beth held the yet un-named Evelyn aloft. Whoever takes this one, she said, must promise to keep it alive.

I averted my eyes.

The plant, Beth said, had come from an estate sale where the family admonished her to take good care of it, because their mother had loved it.

Intrigued, I looked a little closer. I wondered if a plant could feel sadness when losing a long-term relationship or leaving a comfy home with consistent care. No new locale could replicate the exact balance of light or watering schedule. Then I saw something that interrupted my mental musing.

“That looks like two plants,” I blurted, pointing out how the bright green leaves with jagged edges sprouted upward amongst deeper-hued leaves shaped like little hearts.

She looked at it again. “I’ve had this plant 10 years and never noticed that,” she admitted. Then she told me my observation meant I was the one who must take the plant. I agreed because the plant had a story. I love stories.

This week I learned that the woman’s two daughters had made Beth swear that she could and would care for their mother’s favorite plant.

“They themselves were sad that it was not in good shape – their mother’s illness had kept her from being able to care for it in those last weeks,” Beth wrote, adding that a friend who had accompanied her to the sale would periodically ask how the plant was doing. “Once, when she saw that it languished a bit (it’s a hard plant to care for!), she chastised me and reminded me that I had made a promise to care for the plant.”

I’m glad I didn’t know that last summer.

At first, when I hung the pot by the hutch in my dining room, I feared it would succumb as so many other leafy friends had. During the first week it looked parched, as if craving the meals it supervised from its lofty corner.

But I had hopeful optimism and a deep desire to keep the plant alive, in honor of its two previous owners.

Plus, after years of experience killing flora, I knew to check the soil before watering. This must have worked, or else my leafy adoptee decided to accept my limitations as a horticulturist and lived anyway.

When she sprouted new leaves at week three I named her Evelyn. The name means life and makes me think of a kindly woman who has lived many seasons. I hoped the plant would live up to her name.

So far she has. Her two-toned greenery shines as if she’s soaking up the life of our household while giving it back to us with her beauty.

Science may say that plants don’t have emotion but when I look at Evelyn I see a hardy soul. She’s experienced love and loss more than once but still she continues to live and grow, her heart held out for all to see.

Reach Jill Barville by email at