Double Your Memory

If you want to pass on a plant but not part with it, just take a shoot off the old one. Most houseplants easily root from a cutting, including geranium, lavender, succulents, ivies and bromeliads. Some plants, particularly vinelike plants such as the heart-leafed philodendron and grape ivy, grow well from a single leaf stuck in compost. Others, like the wandering Jew, will root simply from a stem in water. 

You should ask your local nursery the best way to reproduce a particular plant (or consult Lewis Hill's "Secrets of Plant Propagation"), but tip or stem cuttings are one of the most common. Here's how.

Make sure the plant is healthy and pest-free. Try to take a piece of plant that has new tip growth; it will contain more growth hormone. If you are not able to plant right away, loosely wrap the cuttings in damp peat moss and plastic wrap or moist paper towels. 

Before planting, strip the plant's bottom leaves and any flowers or buds so the plant can conserve its energy for rooting. Slice the stem off at an angle below a leaf node (the bump left by a removed leaf). Stick the plant in water for a few hours to rehydrate. 

Fill a small container with a rooting medium (a mixture of half perlite and half sand or potting soil works well). Dampen the soil. Poke a small hole and insert the cutting with at least one leaf node beneath the soil (the roots will come from the leaf nodes). Many cuttings, especially the tougher-to-root varieties, will benefit from a dusting of rooting hormone (in powdered or liquid form) over the cut before planting.

Keep it in a warm indoor area and periodically check to make sure the soil stays moist, adding a little water if necessary.  Be patient: it may take the cutting a few weeks to even start to root, and not every plant will survive. You may want to work with several cuttings to ensure your efforts yield a healthy specimen. 

Repot the plant once it has developed a hardy root system. If you are reusing clay pots, scrub them down with a diluted bleach solution and then soak them for a few hours to absorb any excess salts and chemicals.




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The Memory of Plants 

Some of Linda Reynolds' earliest memories are stored not in the pages of a photo album, but in the fuzzy leaves of an African violet. 

"When I was growing up, we often went to Grandma Michael's house for Sunday dinner. Afterwards she would take me around the house to show me how her plants were doing, reminding me of their names and pointing out which ones were blooming. The African violets were probably her favorite -- she had about a dozen different kinds," said Reynolds, a freelance writer now living outside Dallas, Texas. "When Grandma started new plants, she placed leaves in a glass of water and put them in the company of the violets in her kitchen window. Seeing those hairy roots grow from the stems provided one of my earliest science lessons." 

When her grandma died five years ago, Reynolds inherited some of her African violets, an "ever-present reminder that she is always with me through her influences on my life," she says.

As Reynolds knows, plants can be magicians, conjuring vanished times and forgotten places. A single bloom can trigger a memory -- the rosemary wheat bread your grandmother baked, the gardenia perfume your aunt wore or the lemon geraniums your best friend kept on her front stoop. That's part of why we bring plants into our homes. They help us remember the things that sustain us: family, friends, and the earth that connects us all. 

Offspring from a family plant can link kin across time and space, providing a living gateway to the past. Jennifer Gross, 29, has a starry-bloomed Hoya plant that goes back three generations. "My great-grandfather was station master in this small frontier town, West Cliff, Colorado. The Chinese laundromat in town had this gigantic Hoya plant. The owner gave my great-grandmother a cutting from it, and now everyone in the family has a piece of it too," says Gross.

Though the family left West Cliff before she was born, Gross and her husband have visited the town several times. They recently returned to find that the town was building a railroad museum. Among the artifacts on display was an old photo of the laundromat, with the Hoya's tendrils sprawled across the back wall. 

"My grandma published a book, 'Letters from the Wet Mountain Valley,'" that chronicles her life in West Cliff, says Gross, now a temporary resident of Newport, Kentucky. "The plant is almost a physical part of that story, like a correspondence with another time." 

For the nomadic types, plants are a piece of a landscape one has left behind. Charli Ornett, 45, keeps cacti and euphorbia in her San Francisco flat as reminders of her girlhood in Tucson, Arizona. (The prickly plants -- including a Mexican Crown of Thorns and a topknotted Pachypodium -- came from a local cactus shop, as California's border patrol doesn't take kindly to out-of-state vegetation.) 

"I love the plants because they evoke the desert and heat, and they are so spare and clean and improbable...They remind me of the Sonoran desert around Tucson, which I thought was ugly and dead when I first moved there. Eventually I grew to know and love and miss the place like crazy," she said. "And when I water my plants it smells just like the desert after a rain."

Memory gardens, especially in the form of hand-me-down plants, are nothing new. Early settlers brought beloved plants from their home countries to plant in their gardens, some of which have become "passalong plants."

Passalongs are plants that have survived for decades by being handed down from person to person, often because they are easy to grow and well-adapted to the local environment. (For example, Gross' Hoya plant was common in the dark, drafty Civil War parlor.) 

"Many of us grew up on these foolproof plants -- philodendrons, spider plants, snake plants and the like," says Steve Bender, co-author of "Passalong Plants. "Most passalong plants aren't exactly blue-ribbon winners; they just bring back good memories." 

Passalong plants have not only preserved memories, but also helped maintain genetic diversity, according to Bender. Many of these plants have only survived because people have passed them on. Now mainstream seed companies are cashing in on the plant nostalgia with signature heirloom lines, Bender says.

Caring for plants can be powerful therapy when a loved one dies, helping one to work through feelings of grief, anger and helplessness. Memorials like memory gardens can play a special role in the healing process, says Leah Messer Diehl, vice-president of the American Horticultural Therapy Association, based in Denver, Colo.

"Plants connect us to the cycle of life. When we witness a flower going from seed to bloom to death and reseed again -- we are reassured of the never-ending cycle of human life too," says Diehl. "Making that connection to the earth can be very comforting and grounding for someone who is going through difficult times."

When the twin towers fell on September 11, Frank Giannangelo planted herbs around a fish pond in rememberance -- not only of the tragedy, but of the joy of his partner Vicky.

"The enormity of what happened in New York City was overwhelming," says Giannangelo, co-owner of Giannangelo Farms Southwest, an organic flower and vegetable farm in Ramah, NM. "I couldn't write a letter to everyone's family or go there and hand out water bottles, but this was one positive step I could take." 

Giannangelo planted herbs symbolizing the aspects of his wife that he most admires and enjoys, starting with rosemary, which has been the herb of rememberance since Roman times. Then he planted peppermint, the herb of wisdom, to honor Vicky's broad outlook on life; oregano, representing the joy and happiness of planting and living together; and thyme, for the courage encapsulated in her motto "No Guts, No Glory." To bring the remembrance indoors, Giannangelo cloned a rosemary plant and put it by the stairwell; he frequently rubs his fingers on it to enjoy its smell and the associations it brings.

"Every time we put mint in our tea or use the herbs for cooking, whether consciously or not, we are conjuring those associations," said Giannangelo. "Past memories tend to fade and become blurred. But by starting a Garden of Memory for someone living, you create a memory for the future." 


Home-Grown Greens
Not everyone has an heirloom plant to call their own, but we all have imagination and memory to draw from. Use them to create a living memorial honoring a lost loved one or celebrating a milestone. Here are a few ideas to get you started.

Healing herbs 
Invoke the traditional meanings of herbs with a windowsill garden honoring the life and death of a loved one. Mint signifies grief, lemon-scented geranium stands for tranquillity, germander means joy and, as Ophelia reminds us in Hamlet, rosemary symbolizes remembrance. The pots can be painted with words and images representing the person's life. 

Starting from Seed
While you're awaiting childbirth, plant another seed: The plant will be a living measure of your child's time on the planet. Many succulents, palms and citrus grow well from seed indoors. (Seeds taken from fruit are often sterile, however, so you may want to purchase seeds from a store or catalog to ensure a flowering plant.) 

Once your child gets big enough to handle the watering can, you can appoint him or her caretaker of the plant. To showcase your child's evolving artistic abilities, apply metal primer and chalkboard paint to a metal pot. Then you and your family can decorate it with chalk, changing the design as often as you like.

Ancestral altar
Did your grandfather dote on orchids or begonias? Was your great-grandmother a green or black thumb? Explore your roots and create a mantelpiece shrine to your ancestors. Obtain a few of your grandparents' favorite plants, from family cuttings if possible, or use plants native to their homelands. Plant them in heirloom teapots  or antique pots and surround them with family mementos and old photos. 

Wedding tree 
Forget trying to preserve the bridal bouquet -- braid your blood lines together with a live family tree. The ficus is the easiest to braid, and grows well indoors, albeit slowly.  Start with three newly rooted cuttings and plant them close together in same pot. As they develop, slowly braid the new growth; the bottom part of the plait will harden over time. You can make the braiding a ritual for your wedding anniversary.

Spirit of the Green 
Plants are potent spiritual symbols in many cultures and religions.  For example, a Chinese altar to Kwan Yin, the Buddhist goddess of compassion and mercy, traditionally includes a stalky, soil-free "air plant": it's her wand for bestowing blessings. 

A small table or dresser top can easily be made into a shrine honoring a favorite saint, goddess or other inspirational figure. Use plants, flowers, icons and other objects that bring you peace and comfort, keeping a chair or cushion nearby for relaxation or meditation. (For good health, you might consider an altar to St. Ficare, an Irish monk who healed the sick with medicinal herbs. St. Zita, the patron saint of maids and lost keys, can be another useful household ally.) 



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