I keep many houseplants, but I do not always keep them well, or long. As I write this, the remains of a jade plant sit in silent rebuke beside me. The plant had flourished for months, and I had started to feel a measure of pride that I found its preferred water and light levels as new, fleshy leaves continued to sprout at semiregular intervals. Then, during one of the unbroken stretches of stifling humid weather this summer, the stalks of the plant began to soften and then molder. Now it’s a pile of gray mulch in a pot at my elbow.
I’ve had other plants that were dead and I couldn’t even tell. A cactus I continued to water, sparingly as instructed, was not growing, but was still green and perky. Then one day I knocked into it and the cactus tipped over and rolled across the floor, unconnected to the soil and, it turned out, hollow inside. It was a long-dead husk of its former self.
These experiences have led me to be leery of the impulse-buy plants that garden shops put right near the registers. Venus flytraps and an array of sensitive plants, all presented as novelties your kids would beg you to buy like they do packs of gum at the grocery store. I resist these plants, knowing my skill set and their certain fate if they come home with me. The one exception to the rule I have ever found are the air plants.
While at a local garden and gift shop one day, I saw a weathered box beside the register with a jumble of air plants in it. These were labeled “Tillandsia,” which is the name of a genus that includes several hundred different species. These plants do not need to root in soil, living instead as epiphytes or aerophytes — plants that draw water and nutrients through their leaves. The air plants in the shop tousled in the box, their clusters of silver gray spears elegantly curving, soft and felted to the touch. I succumbed to the retail trick and bought three of them, taking them home and setting them up in a cracked clear-glass Christmas ornament I found in a box of free stuff outside a thrift store. The Tillandsias have been hanging in my kitchen window ever since, and I am fairly certain they are still alive.
The plants came with the kind of simple instructions that appear straightforward at first and then prove to be wildly and inadequately nonspecific when put into practice. Phrases like “bright, indirect light,” “moderate temperatures,” and “water when needed” leave me in paroxysms of doubt, knowing that I have killed so many plants before, some by drowning, some by fever, some by too little attendance, some by its excess. An orchid I received as a gift months ago is the first one I have kept alive that long, and only because the tag read “water once a week by placing two to three ice cubes in the pot,” though even the latitude of choosing between two or three ice cubes gives me weekly pause.
For the Tillandsia, the instructions were to soak them for 10 minutes a week. I let mine float in my fish tank for their baths, and they seem none the worse for the head-buttings the fish give them. Sometimes their leaf tips get a little browned and crispy, but then it goes away. They’ve been in the globe in the window for more than a year, not really growing, but not really dying, either, and that, if you were to ask the jade plant, looks like victory.