Ruth Bass: Archives can include old plants



The archival plant has wintered well. The idea, once summer's hot sun was no longer burning into the kitchen, was to put it back on its November to May spot on the wide sill above the sink. The advantages, ordinarily, are several. First, it would be watered regularly, and while plants do well all over this house, they often do it through their willingness to forgive the people who forget the water. You can't ignore a plant that's in front of you all the time.

Second, it would get the less intense sun it likes. No one here has kept count, but the plant must have forgiven the sun this winter, too, since it was definitely on furlough most of the time. But the delicate tendrils kept appearing, and every now and then long stems would drop over the side and produce a cluster of pale pink flowers.

Florists like to sell this very kind of plant on St. Patrick's Day, calling it a shamrock. But it's actually an oxalis, and we treasure it because it started life in my grandmother's house and has been going ever since. That makes it pretty old - she died in 1964. (True shamrocks, by the by, are clovers - in Ireland, they know that.)

You might think it would now be enormous, but it isn't. When a cousin took it on for a number of years, she sometimes tweaked out the odd little nubbins that are its roots and potted them for friends. When the plant was passed on to my sister, she deposited it in Richmond because she was about to get on a plane and return to her West Coast home. She didn't make the deposit happily. She wanted that plant.

So last year, I tweaked and potted. The pot sat there for weeks - not a shred of green, nothing. So I didn't tell her about the attempt, nor did I bother to toss out the potting soil. Apparently a watched oxalis never grows - once I ignored it, tiny green things appeared.

It's in Oregon now, driven across country by my sister, who gave it care along the way. Still, it arrived a droopy thing, and she assumed even the car had been too much. And then it perked up. Our plant has no name, but she calls hers Lazerus, not only because of its first revival, but because it's managed to survive irregular watering at her house, too.


Old plants and plantings have a certain appeal. Years ago, Huck Finn gave me one of his treasured jade plants, an enormous thing that makes the journey outside in late spring via our little red wagon. His frequently bloomed, and ours has not until this year when it produced a single cluster of blossoms. It spends the winter on a sill, covering most of a front window - it belongs on the floor, but the ever-hungry Tracer too often nibbled on its succulent leaves. They don't look good with tooth marks.

We have ancients outside, too, and last fall some of those went on new journeys when the multitudinous first cousins were here for lunch. Aunt Hattie's iris. They started out in Woodstock, Connecticut, traveled to my mother and now live in Oregon, Texas and who knows where.

These are not the modern, giant bearded iris, nor the delicate Japanese ones. They're regular height with smaller blooms, clear yellow and no drama except when they expand into a big clump - which they quickly do.

Like all inherited plants, they evoke memories. Great Aunt Hattie's garden was a riot of color, dominated by the blues of delphinium and decorated with whimsical clay mushrooms. The oxalis brings back Grandma's kitchen, the jade plant once lived in a marvelous sun space in Lenox. If the sun sticks around, we'll plant some new stuff soon and tend the antiques.

Ruth Bass is author of two novels, "Sarah's Daughter" and "Rose." Her website is


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