Today I am Photophilous

The Story

Daniel loved his plants. Ever since he’d watched a mung bean sprout in his fourth grade science experiment, he had been hooked on his leafy little friends. When his mother was tired of the all his botany books covering her kitchen table, she purchased him a moth orchid to watch over. He named it Donut, after his favorite snack, because his brother had just recently gotten a new hamster named Cheeto for the same reason.

Sadly, Cheeto was long gone. But decades later Donut still stood proudly, now at home in Daniel’s large greenhouse. His wife had the green house constructed for his 50th birthday, however he knew the gift also served as a way to save her home from an army of dehumidifiers the tropical plants had started to require. She knew not to ask him to get rid of some of the plants, but he’d already seen her sneak several of his succulents into their daughter’s car when it was packed for college that year. So, he collected all of his warmer-climate greenery and moved them to their new abode before any others found themselves sneakily shipped off.

He couldn’t say he minded a space that was just his own, though. Daniel absolutely loved to visit his greenhouse. From the door, securely closed behind him to maintain homeostasis for the space, he could proudly gaze at his full domain. Each morning he would take a lap around the small pavilion, checking the lighting on the three tired wall mounts holding his toddler Birds of Paradise. He would then note who needed pruning among his Ficus and Schefflera in the lifted trough that split the space in two. On the other side, where half was dedicated to a workbench constantly covered in different dirts and watering cans, he’d check on his experimental group. These were the random vegetables, herbs, or baby tree sprouts he cared for until they found a permanent potting home here or in the outside garden. Lastly, he’d speak to Donut at the workbench. Even as he’d expanded the greenhouse several feet in each direction to make room for new plants, Donut kept his place at the workbench. When asked why, Daniel always said that it was best to have an expert opinion to talk with while he worked.

Today, he discovered a new student in his little workshop. He reached up to pluck the chartreuse little air plant from where it hung on ribbon tied to a sun-lamp. In its skinny leaves it held just a sticky note with drawing of lips and a cursive Love you!

“Ah, an air kiss!” He showed Donut, “From Margie. I’m sure she sends her love to you too, bud.”

After spritzing here, checking soil levels there, he said goodnight to the leafy crew and went inside to join Marge for dinner.

The next morning found Daniel and Marge follow their usual Saturday routine of stopping by the Farmer’s Market downtown to support the local growers. Daniel loved to discuss lighting with the herb farmers, and Marge loved that this gave her time to buy a few cinnamon rolls from the baker. She returned from the stall with two of them and a large rosemary loaf to find he’d acquired several Piper nigrum seeds.

“Our own peppercorn, Margie!” He kissed her icing covered smile.

“Shznttatabine?” She asked, mouth still full.

“Yes! It’s going to need lots of room to vine out- I’ll need to get some new tomato wire on the way home for them to grow, course it will take a while for them to need that, but no harm in having them ready. And then of course I’ll need to look into how many I need to keep for replant so we don’t grind it all up and…”

She steered him towards the car as he continued.

When they got home, Marge shooed Daniel out of the kitchen to go plant his seeds. The last time he’d helped put away groceries while distracted with a new plant, her canned corn landed in the fridge and the ice cream melted in the cupboard before she realized what happened. She’d wanted to throw a fit, but instead just threw him permanently out of grocery duty. He was more than happy to oblige.

As he whistled his way to the greenhouse that afternoon though, he found his path was blocked.

“Are you lost, soldier?” He inquired of the small jade plant resting on the gravel walkway. He picked it up, noting its dirt looked awfully dry in its small blue plastic pot. There was no note on it, no store sticker anywhere. He glanced around to see if the wind had blown one away, but there was nothing around. He turned back to the main house, looking in the window at Marge in the kitchen. How had she snuck this back here without him noticing? They’d been together all day. She looked up and caught his eye, waved. He gestured at the plant, pointing first at it and then at her. She shook her head no, lifted her hands in question. He replied the same.

“Oh well, buddy, so you got here on your own, I guess!” He laughed at his own joke, and escorted the new plant inside to his garden residence.

He named the plant Lucky, as Jade was a plant sign for luck, and also the plant was pretty lucky itself that Daniel found him before the afternoon storm had approached. “Could’ve knocked you right off your boots, little one!” Daniel told Lucky as he gifted it a much larger pot with fresh soil to call home. He placed him next to Donut so he’d had a friend while he healed up a bit.

Over the next few weeks, both Lucky’s branches and mystery grew substantially. Daniel questioned everyone he knew about the plant, but no one seemed to know where it came from or how it arrived in front of his greenhouse. This did not diminish Daniel’s love for Lucky, though. If anything, it threatened Donut’s stance as the favorite.

“You’re going to make the orchid jealous, going on about your new jade like this,” Marge warned him at dinner one night, “I just don’t know if Donut can take not being the favorite!”

Daniel swallowed his bite of spaghetti, “You know you’re the favorite, Margie.”

“Well there’s less mystery from me, you know where I came from.”

“Heaven?” He winked at her.

She laughed, “Georgia!”

“Same thing.”

The end of Spring was always a very busy time for Daniel. Work at the firm did not change pace, but it was seed season at home. For this amateur botanist, it meant a full rearrangement of the greenhouse. Each year as he collected the seeds from the plants finishing their flowering, he would try to keep the reorganization to a minimum. But then he would notice that the new cilantro plants would do better in the trough with the parsley, and really the Birds of Paradise were ready for their new pots and he’d just started healing an old Day Lily from his mother-in-law, so that would need a space where the sun hit right.

This annually resulted in a complete un-housing of every plant. Marge would make a large batch of sweet tea, with a splash of spiced rum thrown in, and the two would get to work pulling plants out, putting them back in, stacking seed containers, readjusting wall mounts, and everything in between. Donut and Lucky watched from the patio. As the only ones of their kind in the collection, they would most likely retain their honored spot at the work bench, but it was safest to stay out of the way for now.

“Oh my, look how big she’s gotten!”

Daniel and Marge both turned to the strange voice near their patio stairs. A young man wearing khakis, dark loafers, and a sky blue button down shirt began to walk towards them. Though this part of Palo Alto was a safe neighborhood, Daniel stepped in front of Marge as the man approached.

“Can I help you?”

“I just wanted to come check on the jade,” the young man gestured towards the deck, “you’ve done so well with her, I knew you would.”

Marge stepped around Daniel, “The jade plant? You left the jade plant here?”

“Yes, I did!” The young man said almost proudly. He put his hands in his pockets and stared at Lucky intently, seemingly waiting for it to greet him back.

Daniel tentatively held out a hand, “and you are?”

“Oh!” The man shook Daniel’s hand firmly, “I’m so sorry, I’m Liam. Liam Montgomery.”

“You’re Becca’s grandson! Oh honey, you remember Becca!” Marge relaxed immediately, and even went to hug Liam, “Oh how we miss having your grandma across the street! She is such a sweet lady! How is she doing at the hospice?”

“Well um, she was doing great, and then not so great.”

Daniel patted Liam on the shoulder, “Oh no, that’s a shame. Did she…?”

“Yes, beginning of March.”

“Oh sweetie, we’re so sorry to hear that. Here have some tea, it’s good and strong.” Marge passed Liam a tall glass.

“Thank you, wow that’s delicious. She went quiet, we all took it hard, but she’s better now so I’m getting a little better with it.”

“Yes, yes of course.”

A small quiet settled over the trio. Daniel always found it hard to say the right thing in these situations, to make it clear he cared without sounding cliche. He normally avoided the issue by dropping off a plant with the friend in need, but clearly that wasn’t the answer since this person had already left a plant with him instead.

“Wait, did Lucky belong to Becca?”

Liam recovered from a large swig of the spiked tea, “Lucky? What?”

“The jade plant,” Marge interpreted, “was it your grandma’s?”

“Oh yeah- ha! You named it Lucky? That’s awesome! Yeah, when they wouldn’t let Miss Kitty join Gran in the nursing home, we got her that plant to look after. She loved it, took care of it and spoke to it all the time.” He laughed with a faraway look, “I think she called it Miss Green, though.”

Daniel nodded, considering, “Miss Green isn’t a bad name.”

“Why’d you leave it here?” Marge asked, peaking at the plant in question as if it might speak up for itself.

Liam rubbed the back of his neck, “Well, when she died, everyone at the funeral brought these flowers and weird little topiaries. My poor mom had Peace Lilies practically bulging out of the house. But none of us got the green thumb from Gran, so of course everything started to die. But when Miss Green, or Lucky I guess, started to droop, I just couldn’t stand it. She loved that thing, and I couldn’t… I…”

“I understand, son.” Daniel guided Liam to the patio to sit down on the steps, the boy had gone just a bit pale in the sun.

“And she’d always talked about she knew everything about plants from her neighbor, that he just knew how to save any sort of rooted being. So I dropped Miss Green here, hoping you all would know what to do.”

“How did you know we were the right neighbors?”

Liam lifted his eyebrows, “You know you can see that greenhouse from the road, right? Thing’s huge.”

Marge shot Daniel a told you look, which he replied to with a laugh, “I suppose so!”

“Seems I made the right call, anyway. She looks great.” Liam stood up, offered a tender stroke along one of the jade’s leaves as if it was a small kitten that might run at his touch.

“She does, your Gran did a great job growing her out.”

Marge nudged Daniel. When he looked, she was jutting her chin at the jade and then at Liam, and back again. He understood.

“Hey, how about now that Miss Lucky Green here is doing so well, would you like to take her back? I can show you how to care for her.”

“Oh no no,” Liam stepped back from the plant, “I couldn’t stand if I somehow killed it. I’m much happier knowing she’s safe here with you.”

“Oh they’re not too hard!”

“I once killed an air plant.”

“…alright, maybe we won’t start you on a jade.”

“How about you roll up those sleeves and help us, let Dan here pick you an easier start up?” Marge threw an extra pair of gardening gloves at Liam.

“Least I could do,” he smiled.

A while later, as the sun began to set, Liam happily bounced away with dirt on his khakis, a toddler Snap Pea in one hand, and a full grown Gerber Daisy in the other. All the plants had been tucked into their new spots, with Lucky and Donut back at their dedicated pedestals.

“That one could use some watering, maybe a little more sun.” Marge said, nodding her head to Liam’s departing frame.

“Hun, I couldn’t agree more.”

*

Liam returned to the greenhouse in the Fall to report on both his successful attempt to keep his plants alive, and his upcoming senior year at college. Daniel noted that the young man appeared to see both tasks as equally challenging, which he found quite charming.

Thanksgiving break saw Liam back in the greenhouse with Daniel, having graduated to a calla lily for his dorm room and prepared to assist in pruning season.

Winter break, Liam arrived with gingerbread cookies for Marge, an electric soil-reader for Daniel, and a date proposition for their daughter Camellia. He returned to school with a large package of Marge’s double fudge brownies, a cute new girlfriend, and a cutting from Miss Lucky Green in a small gold planter. He was quite eager to see what Spring would bring.

The Word

Photophilous (adjective): Of or relating to an organism, as a plant, that is receptive to, seeks, or thrives in light.

Big word time!

Like all of Daniel’s lovely plant friends, I feel that I am photopilous. I’m happiest in a bit of sunshine! We all are, really. When we do our first big stretch to the morning sun, are we not unfurling leaves to get some of that sweet, sweet photosynthesis going? …Alright the metaphor gets a little muffled, but you understand what I am saying: Light is good. Light is life.

Daniel and Marge are both gardeners. They have raised many plants, a daughter, and a few nieces and nephews over the years. When Liam arrives as a slightly-wilted sapling, how can they not take him in and spruce him up?

I also just love to talk about plants. I have several in my apartment, though I am closer to Liam than Daniel in my abilities to keep them thriving (I haven’t killed an air plant yet, though! They’re all doing great!). Having life growing in your space is just very calming, and very rejuvenating.

And, it reminds us just how much a little clear water and sweet sunshine can do!