of a Gardening Maniac
ailing from New Jersey, my earliest memory
of a houseplant is of one very small-leaved
philodendron trickling out of a porcelain jester
pot in our sunless living room. I remember
seeing it there when they brought me home from
the hospital as a newbie. When I moved out after high school it was still
there. In the years between, it neither grew nor died but rather existed in a
state of botanical limbo.
New Jersey may be the “Garden State” and certainly will forever put
California tomatoes to shame but as far as growing houseplants – the
wandering Jews, Charlies, and spider plants that forlornly dangle from
faded macramé plant hangers do just that. They dangle. They don’t grow,
Back then, our most exotic leafy specimen was the tired and
variegated spider plant that Aunt Sylvia presented to my mom as a gift
for hosting the Mah Jongg game. Its dingy white-and-green-striped
foliage with the salt-burned brown tips and edges was a true horticultural
wonder; it captivated us all.
Since Trader Joe’s wasn’t trading much back then, orchids could only
be found awkwardly pinned to starchy pastel prom dresses and were years
away from displaying their super unnaturally long-lasting blooms on our
kitchen and bathroom window sills.
And to this day whenever I’m at a nursery or in the produce section
of the supermarket and see an optimistic needlepoint ivy, purple passion
plant, coleus or other garden variety (sorry about that) houseplant I always
hear myself say, “That there’s a New Jersey house plant.”
All these decades later, my Montecito gardens do have wandering
Jew and some Charlies, but the wandering Jew is a variety called
and only vaguely resembles its New Jersey cousin because the gently
variegated leaves start out pink and fade to white and then to green.
Often, this trailing perennial boasts all these colors at the same time until
I cut it back and start the whole show again. Not content to stay in its
original pot, some rogue cuttings have broken off and naturalized here and
there throughout my garden beds.
The Charlies that I grow are
started as cuttings in a milk bottle – potted up into one-gallon containers
and then on to larger two-gallons and fives, or planted into the garden.
Electric lavender-hued flowers and puckered foliage, these Charlies cannot
Here in Montecito it’s difficult to find a garden that does not have
cymbidiums – poor man’s orchids – either prominently displayed as part
of the landscape in concrete or terra cotta planters or unapologetically
stashed under the oaks or avocados. Either way, they will unconditionally
throw out spikes of blooms whether they are tended to or not.
Higher up the orchid food chain, laelias, Australian dendrobiums
and bamboo-like sobralias are all easy orchids that will thrive between
the hedgerows of Montecito. Potted sobralias camouflaged amidst other
garden plants in bright morning or filtered afternoon sun will surprise
you every time their corsage-like blooms appear seemingly out of nowhere
floating above the stalks of foliage.
After securely fastening laelias and dendrobiums to your palm trees
they’ll eventually grasp on by themselves with tendril-like roots that work
themselves into the crevices of the tree bark. With just an occasional spritz
from the hose and some food now and then they’ll graciously reward you
with some crazy blooms.
by Randy Arnowitz
photos by Lindsey Eltinge
laelias will thrive and
outdoors in Montecito's