Banana plant in summer

YES, WE HAVE NO BANANAS (title of 100-yr-old song)

I Receive a Giant Teardrop

Since I don’t live in the tropics, I bring a bit of it into my house. Hence, the banana tree that, years ago, tropicalized my living room for a number of winters. The plant made a nice houseplant for awhile, its large leaves jutting into the air like velvety, soft, green wings. Pests never bothered it. It even signaled to me when it was thirsty by drooping its leaf blades down along its midribs.

Banana plant in summer

Banana plant in summer

But mind you, I was not growing this plant only for show. I also wanted to harvest bananas. In the warm tropics, bananas fruit when they are only ten to fifteen months old; in a warm greenhouse, plants fruit in two or three years; in my sixty to seventy degree, sometimes colder, house . . . well, fruit was a goal, but I was in no particular hurry. Read more

Weeping fig bonsai


No Drama

A seminal moment in the gardening year turned out to be thankfully anticlimactic. That moment was the arrival, on the morning of November 2nd, of the first fall frost. It turned out to be more than just a frost; it was a freeze, with temperature plummeting to a very chilly 22.7°F at 7:33 that morning. (I didn’t have to keep running outdoors to check my thermometer, but am able to monitor past temperatures recorded on my iPhone throughout days and nights with my handy Sensorpush.)Frosty morning

The cold weather had taken its time in arriving. Weather stations around the country have compiled the “average date for the first killing frost” for sites throughout the country. (Also the “average date for the last killing frost” for spring.) Where I farmden, that first frost date is October 22. That is an average; the chance of frost arriving sometime before early November is 80%, and the chance of that frost arriving by mid-October is 20%. Last week’s freeze was late.

Years ago, as a novice gardener, I planned my gardening around these published dates. I considered these averages fixed in stone. With global warming, those dates were officially amended. Messed me up for awhile until I realized that the complexity of the natural world makes it appear capricious. Read more

Hardy cyclamen in pot


Elbow Room and Food

What’s happening in the soil beneath your potted plants? Over time, roots fill up the pot so there’s little more room left for them to grow. And nutrients get sucked out of the soil or washed out by water.

I keep my potted plants hale and hardy with periodic repotting. This also gives me a look at the roots, which I always find interesting. (It was one area of my research when I worked for Cornell University.) If I see roots are pressed around the outside of the rootball, especially if traveling around and around it, they’re telling me they want out. A plant might also indicate its roots need more elbow room by looking like it’s ready to topple over. More subtle signs are potting soil that dries out very quickly, a plant hardly growing, or roots attempting escape out a pot’s drainage holes.

Rapidly growing plants need repotting yearly, especially when they are young; older plants and slow growers can get by with being repotting every two or three years. Some plants hardly ever need repotting, such as — looking around my collection — my amaryllis (Hippeastrum), bay laurel, hardy cyclamen, jade plant, aloe, and cactus.

Amaryllis and my dog

Amaryllis & Sammy

I wait to repot my ponytail palm until its bulbous base breaks open the pot it’s growing in; this happens about every 15 years. Same goes for my clivia.
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Asexual Propagation

One of my great enjoyments in gardening is propagating plants. So many ways to do it! You can take stem cuttings or root cuttings, or you can serpentine layer, tip layer, or stool layer. And then there’s grafting, of which, as with layering and cuttage, many, many variations exist. Whole books have been written on plant propagation, even solely on grafting. My favorites for these two topics are Hartmann and Kester’s Plant Propagation: Principles and Practices and R. J. Garner’s Grafter’s Handbook.

The above mentioned methods of propagation are asexual. New plants are made from mother tissue of an existing plant. As such, all the new plants are clones of the mother plant. Not always, though.

Grapefruit chimera

Grapefruit chimera

A plant chimera, analogous to the lion-goat-dragon of mythology, is a plant made up of two genetically different cells, a plant mosaic. Depending on what part of the plant you take for propagation, you end up with a clone of one or the other cell type, or, perhaps, both (the chimera). A plant usually broadcasts that it’s a chimera with splotches or lines of color different from the surrounding color of the leaves, flowers, or fruits. (Splotches or lines of color can also be caused by viruses.)

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Weeping Fig, Growth in Check

My little fig tree put on a lot of new growth this year. Let me qualify this statement. By “fig,” in this case, I mean my weeping fig (Ficus benjamina). It’s a relative of edible fig, also edible (but rarely eaten), and a common houseplant, valued for its relaxed appearance, its small, glossy green leaves, and its tolerance for indoor environments. By “a lot of new growth,” I mean a half an inch or so.Bonsai fig

Despite that meager growth, the plant has grown too large. Nothing like it would have grown outdoors in open ground in the tropics, where this trees’ branches quickly soar skyward and sideways to the size of our sugar maples. From those branches drip aerial roots which anchor themselves in the ground, the ones nearest the trunk eventually merging together to become part of a fattening trunk.Weeping fig in Puerto Rico

My little fig, you probably guessed by now, is a bonsai. The tree, if I may call a four-inch-high plant a “tree,” began life here as one of a clump of what evidently were rooted cuttings in a small, plastic pot I purchased on impulse from a big box store. 

Back here at the farmden, I got to work on it, first teasing the plants apart from each other, selecting one as keeper. The road to bonsai-dom began as I trimmed back the roots to be able to fit the plant into its new home, a 3 by 4-1/2 inch shallow pot about an inch deep. There was little to prune aboveground, but I made any cuts necessary, with the future in mind.

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Poinsettia Absolved

Sunny temperature reaching the 50s a few days ago enticed me outdoors for pruning. Today, with temperatures in the 20s, I’m back indoors (except for a very pleasant cross-country ski tour earlier) looking over what plants I have, or might have, growing indoors. Their ominous or not so ominous sides.

Mention poisonous houseplants and most people immediately think of poinsettias. Actually, poinsettia’s bad reputation is unfounded. The plant’s not really poisonous. Only a masochist would be able to ingest enough of this foul tasting plant to cause the occasional cases of vomitting that have been reported. This is not to pooh-pooh the toxicity of all houseplants. Many are poisonous.poinsettia

No sane adult walks around the house plucking houseplant leaves to eat; the greatest danger from poisoning is to children. Ten percent of the inquiries to poison control centers across the nation concern plant poisonings, and the bulk of those inquiries concern children younger than three years. (But in only a small percentage of these cases does the child actually have symptoms of poisonings.)

Common Culprits

Years ago, I hosted philodendron and dumbcane (Diffenbachia spp.), two very common houseplants, in my home. These two plants are responsible for the first and second most reported poisonings, respectively.

Variegated philodendron

Variegated philodendron

They are in the Araceae Family, a group of plants with needle-like crystals of calcium oxalate in their leaves and stems. When chewed, the crystals cause immediate pain in the mouth and throat, which commonly leads to swelling. This makes speech difficult and is the origin for the common name “dumbcane” for Diffenbachia species. Ingest enough leaves of either plant and vomiting and diarrhea, even death, could follow. Other houseplants in this family include elephant’s ear (Alocasia spp.), flamingo flower (Anthurium spp.), and caladium (Caladium bicolor).





The “philodendron” that I grew and many people grow is commonly known as Swiss cheese plant, for its large, holey leaves. Botanically, it’s not a Philodendron, although it was originally classified as one. Now it’s botanical name is Monstera deliciosa. Deliciosa! A poisonous plant? This is one member of the Araceae that bears an edible fruit. The fruit resembles an ear of corn and tastes something like a combination of pineapple and banana. That’s when it’s ripe. Unripe, not so tasty, rich in oxalic acid, and poisonous.Monstera fruit

Poinsettias are ranked third as far as the number of reported (not actual) poisonings nationwide. Although poinsettia really is not toxic, it’s a member of the Spurge Family, a family which includes many toxic plants. Guilt by association, perhaps. Members of the Spurge Family contain a milky latex in their sap, and this latex can cause dermatitis. A houseplant Spurge that does warrant caution is the Crown-of-Thorns, which, as long as we are talking about danger to children, also is heavily armed with stout thorns.Crown-of-thorns

Now is the time of year when blooms on forced bulbs carry gardeners through the last leg of winter before spring planting. Most of these bulbs are in the Lily Family, 

Potted daffodils

another family with many poisonous members. The daintiness of Lily-of-the-Valley belies the fact that it contains a potent cardiac glycoside (much like the digitalis found in foxgloves), which even leaches into the water of cut flowers. Hyacinths are wonderfully fragrant, yet also toxic. All parts of sunny daffodils contain lycorine, a toxin that can cause dermatitis with skin contact, and diarrhea and convulsions if ingested.
That toxin, lycorine, also is found in another winter bulb, amaryllis (Hippeastrum spp.), though amaryllis is not in the Lily Family.Amaryllis

And More

A few other houseplants in widely scattered plant families also are worth mentioning for their toxicity. Jerusalem cherry (Solanum pseudocapsicum), a houseplant with brightly colored berries, is in the Deadly Nightshade Family. The family name should tell you something about the plant’s toxic properties. Not all members of the family are toxic in the amounts normally ingested; if so, we’d have to give up eating tomatoes, eggplants, peppers, and potatoes.

Mistletoe is not a houseplant per se, yet it is a plant in the house at Christmas. The white berries, which tend to fall to the ground as the plants dry out, are toxic.

English ivy is a plant that is grown both indoors and outdoors. Unfortunately, its leaves are also toxic.English ivy

I don’t like to cast a somber cloud over these houseplants, but it’s important to know which are toxic so as to keep them beyond the inquisitive reach of very young hands. If a child does manage to ingest a plant, save part of the plant for positive identification, and then call a poison control center ( It is not always advisable to induce vomiting, because this can further spread irritating materials.

Now why does an otherwise friendly looking plant — a philodendron, for instance — have to strike a menacing chord with a toxin in its leaves? Inside our homes, overwatering or underwatering probably is the major threat to any houseplant’s existence. But out in the jungle, a philodendron needs some way to ward off a big gorilla who might find the leaves an appetizing salad. In this case, a burning, swollen mouth is a good deterrent.


Easiest Houseplant of All?!

What with the frigid temperatures and snow-blanketed ground outside, at least here in New York’s mid-Hudson Valley, I turn my attention indoors to a houseplant. To anyone claiming a non-green thumb, this is a houseplant even you can grow. 

Most common problems in growing houseplants (garden plants also) come from improper watering. Too many houseplants suffer short lives, either withering in soil allowed to go bone dry between waterings, or gasping for air in constantly waterlogged soil. Also bad off yet are those plants forced to alternately suffer from both extremes.King Tut cyperus

The plant I have in mind is umbrella plant (Cyperus alternifolius); it requires no skill at all in watering. Because it’s native to shallow waters, you never need to decide whether or not to water. Water is always needed! The way to grow this plant is by standing its pot in a deep saucer which is always kept filled with a couple of inches of water. What could be simpler?

One caution, though. The top edge of the saucer does have to be below the rim of the pot. Umbrella plants like their roots constantly bathed in water, but not their stems.

Lest you think that umbrella plant sacrifices good looks for ease of care, it doesn’t. Picture a graceful clump of bare, slender stems, each stem capped with a whorl of leaves that radiate out like the ribs of a denuded umbrella.

cyperus plant

The stems are two to four feet tall, each leaf four to eight inches long. A dwarf form of the plant, botanically C. albostriatus, grows only a foot or so high, and has grassy leaves growing in amongst the stems at the base of the plant. There’s also a variegated form of umbrella plant, and a wispy one with especially thin leaves and stems. Cyperus  flowers

Umbrella plants aren’t finicky about care other than watering. They grow best in sunny windows, but get along in any bright room. As far as potting soil, your regular homemade or packaged mix will suffice. Umbrella plants like a near-neutral pH, as do most other houseplants.

Want More?

As the clump of stems ages and expands, they eventually get overcrowded in the pot, calling out to be repotted. You could move it to a yet larger pot, or make new plants by pulling apart, cutting if necessary, the large clumps to make smaller clumps and potting each of them separately. 

One way wild umbrella plants propagate is by taking root where their leaves touch ground when the stems arch over. You can mimic this habit indoors if you want to increase your umbrella plant holdings without dividing the clump. Fold the leaves down around the stem with a rubber band, as if you were closing the umbrella. Cut the stem a few inches below the whorl of leaves and poke the umbrella, leaves pointing upward, into some potting soil — kept constantly moist, of course.

An Almondy Relative

Though you may be unfamiliar with umbrella plant, you probably have come across its near-relatives either in the garden or in literature. One relative is yellow nutsedge (C. esculentum), a plant usually considered a weed and inhabiting wet soils from Maine down to the tropics. 

The edible nutsedge, also C, esculentum, usually called chufa or earth almond, is not invasive, at least in what I’ve read from many sources, and in my experiences growing the plants. It’s a perennial that has been cultivated since prehistoric times and was an important food in ancient Egypt.

But esculentum in the botanical name means “edible,” and refers to the sweet, nut-like tubers the plant produces below ground. I grow this plant, and now consider it quite esculentum, with a taste and texture not unlike fresh coconut. Chufa tubersThe main challenge with this plant is clearing and separating the almond-sized tubers from soil and small stones.

Storage improves their flavor, but they must be dried for storage, at which point they become almost rock hard. Give them an overnight soaking and they’re ready to eat as a snack or incorporate into other edibles or drinkables.

Paper Plant

Umbrella plant’s other famous relative is papyrus (C. papyrus), a plant that once grew wild along the Nile River. In ancient times, papyrus was used not only to make paper, but also to build boats and as food. Papyrus looks much like umbrella plant, and being subtropical, also would make a good houseplant. But with stems that may soar to fifteen feet in height, except for the diminutive variety King Tut, this species is too tall for most living rooms.

The Egyptians never recorded their method for making papyrus into paper but the Romans learned the process from the Egyptians and Pliny the Elder, a Roman, wrote about it in the first century B.C.

Genuine, Egyptian papyrus

Genuine, Egyptian papyrus

Here’s how: You  put on your toga and sandals (the latter also once made from papyrus), and prune down a few umbrella plant stalks. Cut the stalks into strips and, after soaking them in water for a day, lay them side by side in two perpendicular layers. Make a sandwich of the woven mat surrounded on either side by cloth, to absorb moisture, surrounded on either side with pieces of wood, then press.

In Egyptian sunlight, you could figure on the paper being dry and ready for use after about three weeks. Cut it to size to fit your printer.


Calamity Avoidance

A horticultural calamity averted. Again. Deb was snipping some leaves from our potted rosemary “tree” for salad dressing and said she noticed that the plant looked a little wilty. I was skeptical. Rosemary leaves are so narrow and stiff that they hardly broadcast their thirst. Still, quite a few rosemary plants have succumbed to winter drought here.Potted rosemary tree in winter

I checked the plant and, in fact, the leaves did look a bit wilty. The probe of my sort-of-accurate electronic moisture tester (which I nonetheless highly recommend) confirmed Deb’s diagnosis. The soil was very dry but, luckily, not to the point of killing the plant.

Allow me to digress . . . Soil scientists represent soil moisture levels with four descriptors. Right after a thorough watering, a soil is “saturated,” with all pores filled with water. Saturation is not desirable in the long term because roots need to “breathe” to do their work of drawing in nutrients and water, which is why plants exhibit the same symptoms from either dry or sodden soil.

Without additional water, gravity begins to pull water down and out of the larger pores of a saturated soil. Once gravity has pulled all the water it can from a soil, the soil is at “field capacity,” much to the pleasure of resident plants. At this point, large pores are filled with air yet some water, which is available for plants, is retained within smaller pores and clinging to soil particles.

Roots continue to slurp more and more water from the soil, but with increasing difficulty because water within even smaller pores and clinging even closer to soil particles is increasingly tightly held there by capillary attraction. Although the soil has moisture, it’s mostly inaccessible to plants. “Wilting point” has been reached.

Eventually, the only moisture left in the soil is that held very tightly in the very smallest pores and pressed tight against soil particles. That’s “permanent wilting point” from which, as the name implies, there’s no turning back. The plant will die.

The actual amount of water in a soil at any of these stages depends on the range of particle sizes in the soil. Clay soils have tiny particles, with tiny spaces between them, so have more water at wilting and permanent wilting point than do sandy soils, with their large particles and large pores.

Soil water vs. particle size

At or near field capacity, sands have more air and less water than clays.

Where were we? Oh, my rosemary plant. I’m figuring it was just teetering on the edge of wilting point. Needless to say, I watered both my rosemary “trees.”

(For a lot more about soil water and how to make the best of it, see my book The Ever Curious Gardener: Using a Little Natural Science for a Much Better Garden.)

Dry Air, Moist (Enough) Soil

You’d think — I once did — that rosemary, because in the wild it billows down dry hillsides overlooking the Mediterranean, would be resistant to drought. It does tolerate dry air. But those wild plants’ roots are in the ground where they can forage far and wide for moisture; not so in a pot.

Also, my rosemary plants are coddled with relatively consistent warmth in winter and a potting mix rich in nutrients. Couple this with low light conditions, even near a south-facing window, and you get very succulent growth. I don’t know what rosemary plants growing on a Grecian hillside are doing now, but my plants are growing like gangbusters. All that succulent growth transpires lots of water, and is very susceptible to drought.

Rosemary, half survived

Left half of this rosemary expired last summer

Once my plants go outdoors in summer, their leaves mature and toughen and growth is less succulent. They do still need sufficient moisture, so I have drip tubes on a timer quenching their thirst (and that of other plants). Except, that is, when the timer’s battery needs replacing and I don’t notice it. That was last summer. The plants were not at the permanent wilting point but a number of branches, which I pruned off, dried up, dead.

In Praise of Potted Rosemary

All this is not to frown upon growing rosemary where it can’t survive winters outdoors. On the contrary, I consider rosemary to be the finest herb for indoor growing. Flavorwise, it packs a powerful punch, unlike chives, for example, a plant that needs to be practically decimated if you really want to flavor something with it. Merely brushing against my rosemary plant releases an aromatic, piney cloud.

Rosemary is also a very attractive houseplant whether grown as a scraggly shrub reminiscent of the wild plants in their native haunts, trained as dense cones, or — as are my plants — as miniature trees. The leaves retain a healthy, verdant look, unlike those of basil, which look sickly and out of their element in dry, relatively dark and cool homes in winter.

Rosemary also rarely suffers from any insect or disease problem.

And finally, properly cared for, rosemary is perennial so can provide aroma, flavor, and beauty   for many, many years.

But you and I do need to pay close attention to watering.

standard bay, rosemary, citrus

Rosemary, with its compatriots, bay and citrus, in summer


Sap Season

Get your taps in. It’s syrup weather. Maple syrup. At least here in New York’s Hudson Valley, the sunny days in the 40s with nights in the 20s that are predicted should get the sap flowing.

  I say “should” because I haven’t yet checked sap buckets that I hung out on the trees a few weeks ago when winter temperatures suddenly turned warm; it was sap weather back then. That day was hopeful: I drilled holes an inch and a half deep, lightly hammered in the spiles, hung buckets, and attached covers over the buckets. Frigid days and nights that descended soon after that kept sap flow in abeyance.

  My “sugar bush” amounts to only three sugar maple trees. I used to have four, but a large tree that was a truly magnificent representative of its species began an irreversible path to its death. My older sugar mapel“Maple decline” is a disease complex brought on by some combination of drought, soil compaction, road salt, root damage, and air pollution. Upper branches are usually the first to go, and once decline begins, secondary fungi and insects speed the process along.

  I’m not sure about my tree, though, because its lower branches were the first to go. Also, the tree grows along the back edge of my property, where it’s been shielded from those usual causes for decline.

  One more contributor to decline is overtapping. I plead not guilty. My fading tree was larger than the 8 or10 inch minimum diameter for tapping, and I only tapped it once, when the tree, it turned out, was already going downhill. The lack of sap flow was what prompted me to see all this. And then I noticed many rows of sapsucker holes in the bark.

Long story short: The tree became firewood.
Maple syrup buckets
My three other, healthy maples might yield me only a quart of finished syrup. The reasons? One quart is enough for me, so I’m tapping only one of them. Also, they’re relatively young. I planted those three trees about 25 years ago, and they’re now only about 8 inches in diameter.

I highly recommend planting trees, for their beauty, for what food they might offer, and for the mere satisfaction of watching the plants grow. Especially if they are small when planted. Small trees also establish quickly to require less aftercare, often soon outgrowing their initially larger compatriots. Those three maple trees? From one perspective, it seems like a long time ago that I dug holes and set the saplings in the ground; from another perspective, it seems like I planted them, walked away, then turned right around to find that these young ‘uns have grown into bona fide trees!

Birch Sap

I may end up with more sap than planned, but not maple sap. Along with the three sugar maples I planted way back when, I also planted three river birches (Betula nigra). They grow, appropriate to their name, in a wet area just out of a swale through which water runs in spring, each a clump of a half dozen or so sturdy trunks reaching skyward to about 35 feet.

Maple might be the heaviest sap producing tree, but it’s not the only kid on the block. Many people tap their black walnut trees. Call me provincial, but black walnut syrup, much as I love the nuts themselves, has no appeal me even though I’ve never tasted it.

Birch syrup though . . . mmm. Never tasted that one either, but it sounds good. Three birch taps should offer an ample amount for tasting.River birches

What a Funny Name

  I don’t need to see the small, pebbly-skinned, orange orbs on grocers’ shelves to know that it’s kumquat season. My own Meiwa kumquat is looking very pretty, with a good crop of fruit staring out from their backdrop of glossy, forest-green leaves. I’ve trained the plant as a “standard,” that is, as a miniature tree with a crown of branches perched atop a four foot trunk.
Kumquat houseplant
 The present crop is my best ever, and traces its success back to last spring. In previous years, I was too timid with pruning. And pruning is necessary, every year. Pruning keeps the plant from growing disproportionately large for its pot -– or my house — and coaxes growth of new, fruiting wood.

The roots also get pruned each year to make space for new potting soil for root growth and nutrients. I laid down the plant and pot to easily slide out the root ball. After slicing an inch or two of roots and potting soil from all around the outside of the root ball, back into the pot the plant went, with new potting soil packed in the space between the shaven root ball and the inside edge of the pot. The seemingly brutal treatment took place last year just as the garden awoke in yellow blossoms from daffodils.
Repotting kumquat
As soon as weather warmed, new sprouts began to grow. By midsummer, the plant was fragrant with blossoms. By late summer, little, green fruits were forming which, with careful watering, survived the environment change as the plant moved indoors in October. The plant stood at attention in a sunny window in the cool bedroom for weeks, and a couple of months ago, the fruits started turning orange. They are now ripe and delicious!


Exotic, tropical fruits are turning up more and more frequently on grocers’ shelves these days: dates, papayas, guavas, and others. I look upon these fruits opportunistically, because within each lies dormant seeds that can be coaxed to become exotic, if not beautiful, indoor plants that might even provide a delicious fruit harvest. Such plants provide a break from the humdrum of spider plants, philodendrons, and Swedish ivies. 

Seeds of tropical fruits usually germinate best if planted as soon as the fruits are eaten. Cold-climate fruits, in contrast, have innate inhibitors that prevent seed germination until they feel that winter is over.

So all that’s necessary to grow most tropical fruits is to wash their seeds and sow them in potting soil, using the old rule of thumb of burying a seed to twice its depth. And then wait.


  I have harvested fruit grown from the seed of a grocery store bought pineapple guava, also known as the feijoa (pronounced FAY-HO’-A, from the generic part of its unwieldy Latin name, Feijoa sellowiana, recently change to Aca sellowiana). The fresh seeds, scooped from the fruit, germinated and grew.
Feijoa fruit
Feijoa seems to me an ideal plant to grow. Even outdoors where it’s native, the tree is small, so does not mind being kept five foot high in a pot which can be carried indoors during our frigid winters. The plant is subtropical rather than tropical, so can stand a bit of cold, down to about 10 degrees Fahrenheit. 

Feijoa has leaves which are shiny and dark green on their upper surfaces, and felt-like and silvery on their lower surfaces. My plant spends winter decorating a sunny, south-facing window in a cool room in my house. The flowers’ stamens are arranged in a tuft like a red bottlebrush, and the petals are thick, purple and white. Those petals are very edible and very delicious, with a sweet, pineapple-minty flavor.
Feijoa flower
But best of all is the fruit itself. Beneath the thin skin is a gelatinous center with a spicy pineapple flavor. My feijoa plant hasn’t provided sufficient harvest to satisfy my feijoa-ish needs.


The waiting period for a date fruit can be a long time, even a long time for the seed to germinate. But stop for a moment and think about deserts, where dates are native. Should a date seed send up a leafy shoot with the first hint of moisture? Of course not. The dry desert air would dehydrate the sprout in short order. When a date seed germinates, first its thick taproot grows straight downwards, seeking permanent moisture, long before even a small sprout appears aboveground.

I once planted some date seeds (first making sure they came from unpasteurized dates). Knowing that I would have a long wait before the first sprouts emerged, I planned to watch the roots grow to keep myself from becoming too impatient. I put an inch of water in the bottom of a peanut butter jar, slid a tube of rolled-up blotting paper (watercolor paining paper would probably also work well) into the jar, and then “planted” the date seeds halfway up the jar, pressed between the glass and the paper. 

As predicted, the roots appeared and thrust downwards before there was any sign of a shoot. When I eventually became bored watching the progress of the roots, I planted the seedlings in potting soil.

Leaves finally did poke up through the soil, an event that was far from dramatic. Each emerging seedling looked like a green toothpick stuck into the soil. In time, the “toothpicks” did unfurl into a succession of fan-like leaves which would match any ordinary houseplant for beauty and tolerance of neglect. 

Fruit production from a homegrown date palm is well-nigh impossible. The plant grows slowly. Climate here in northeastern U.S. is suboptimal, to say the least. And only female plants produce fruit, so enough plants would have to be grown to flowering size to ensure at least one male (for pollination) and one female (for fruit).
Date fruit on plant

Date palm orchard

Date palm orchard, Israel


One winter day a number of years ago, I planted seeds from a papaya fruit I had just eaten. Having seen papayas growing wild throughout the tropics, I assumed they would not be hard to grow. I scooped the seeds from the fruit, washed them to remove their gelatinous coating, and sowed them immediately. 

Growing papayas proved as challenging as growing dates. In this case, not only were the seeds slow to germinate, but the young seedlings were extremely fragile and subject to damping-off. I nursed a single survivor beyond this wimpy initial stage, and, in time, it began to grow robustly.

Potted papaya at Chanticleer

Potted papaya at Chanticleer

In the tropics, papayas are short-lived trees that often bear their first fruits as early as eleven months after seed is sown. My papaya tree was outgrowing its one-foot-diameter pot when warm weather arrived, so I decided to plant it outside and hope for fruit. Imagine the astonishment of my neighbor, who grew up in Florida, when he saw a tropical papaya tree in my garden! 

Unfortunately, my plant succumbed to the first fall frost before it had a chance to fruit. Fruiting would have been chancy anyway, because papaya plants come in various combinations of sexes. Some plants have only male flowers; others only female flowers; and still others have bisexual flowers. Papaya have been known to switch their sex under certain conditions. To fruit, my single plant would have needed bisexual flowers, which remained so.

  The feijoa, date palm, and the papaya take their place in the long line of avocados, prickly pears, tree tomatoes, kumquats, lemons, tangerines and other forgotten grocery store plants that once were and, in some cases, still are part of my indoor jungle.

Lemon, Kumquat, Opuntia, Tree tomato

Lemon, Kumquat, Opuntia, Tree tomato