Every Wednesday, I hope to find a new ‘weed’ to investigate. My only criterion will be that I will not have deliberately planted the subject of our inquiry. Who knows what we will find…..
Dear Readers, when I was growing up my paternal grandmother had a number of houseplants. There was a rubber plant that had grown almost to the ceiling, with leaves that were lovingly wiped once a week. There were various ferns with fronds browning in the dry air (these were cut off with nail scissors as soon as they began to look untidy). And there was the most magnificent spider plant, bursting forth like a fountain and producing little starry white flowers which would, in due course, turn into new spider plants. If not transplanted quickly enough, these would root into the carpet, but this was an unusual happening in a house where no grain of dust was allowed to languish.
I have two spider plants myself, acquired because they are believed to be particularly good at cleaning up household air, and because they are tolerant, hardy plants, prepared to forgive negligence and mishandling. For a while, I was giving my plants a ‘holiday’ on the patio in the summer, but soon discovered that they are a favourite with slugs and snails. One plant came back into the house with a positive colony of tiny snails living under the rim of the pot, and they could be caught shimmying forth across the Persian carpet if you got up during the night.
I note that there are also several spider plants now living in the entrance to East Finchley tube station, and these are rather fine specimens, standing on a plinth and cascading down. They are a good choice for this spot because they don’t seem to mind low light, draughts, people accidentally knocking them off their podium, and the other hazards of being in a public space. And so I got to thinking. What on earth are they? And how did they get to become one of the most popular houseplants in the world?
The Latin name for the spider plant is Chlorophytum comosum, and popular names include airplane plant and spider ivy. Interestingly, none of the names include the word ‘grass’, in spite of the fact that this is what the plant most closely resembles. However, its closest relatives are actually agaves, aloes, hostas and the Joshua tree, members of the Agavoideae family. There are some 200 members of the spider plant genus, but our plant comes from tropical and southern Africa originally. In the wild there seem to be three subspecies: one with very narrow leaves that grows along the margins of forests, and two others that live within the forest itself, and have broad leaves which help to make the most of the dappled sunlight.
In cultivation there are two popular variegated varieties. One, ‘Vittatum’, has a broad white stripe down the middle of each leaf, and the flower stalks are white.
The other, ‘Variegatum’ has leaves with white margins, and the flower stalks are green. It goes to show how much attention I’ve paid that I’ve never noticed the difference.
To return to the subject of using spider plants to clean air: they are said to be particularly good at neutralising formaldehyde (which can be found in automobile exhausts and cigarette smoke, among other pollutants). However, you would need 70 plants to clean the air in a 160m square energy-efficient house, so I’d better be encouraging mine to produce some plantlets at speed. A spider plant will also give you a hand (leaf) with toluene and xylene, should you be suffering from such noxious substances. And all for the price of a regular watering and an occasional (very occasional in my case) feeding when you get round to it.
Spider plants are also said to be very good at absorbing the smell of fresh paint. Let me know if you have any experience of such a phenomenon – my house is due for a ‘freshen up’ on the paint front, and the smell always gives me a sore throat.
Incidentally, my spider plants were for a while displayed elegantly on top of my husband’s expensive speakers. One day I was watering the plants and didn’t notice that the leaves had directed the water into the equipment. One of the speakers is currently with the Hi-fi doctor, and I am keeping an unusually low profile.
It appears that spider plants are eaten in the regions of Africa where they grow wild – they apparently have a bitter taste, but are full of vitamin C and various micronutrients. If you had the 70 plants recommended to reduce your in-house pollution, you would have an abundance for your eggs Florentine or spider plant omelette. The plant, especially the stem, is also relatively high in protein.
In Polish-American folklore, the white flowers on a spider plant signify a birth or a wedding.
Medicinally, the plant has been used by the Nguni people of South Africa as a charm to protect a pregnant mother and her baby. The plant is kept in the room where the mother and child are staying, and the roots are dipped into water which the mother then drinks. The child is also given an infusion of the leaves.
Apparently some cats develop an attraction to spider plants, and get ‘high’ much as some cats do with catnip. Although the plants are not toxic, this is probably a good reason for hanging them up somewhere high (though not on top of expensive speakers, see above).
Incidentally, the two biggest problems that spider plants suffer from are red spider mites (ironic, given the name) and browning leaf tips. For the spider mites, the recommended treatment is to blast the little arachnids with strong alcohol on a cotton bud (should you have such a substance in the house, of course).Those brown leaf tips, though, are due to an accumulation of fluoride, which the plant can’t tolerate. The recommended treatment is to cut off the affected leaf tips, and to water the plant with rain water or, at a pinch, with water that’s been allowed to stand overnight so that some of the fluoride evaporates off. Who knew? The things that I learn in the course of this blog never fail to amaze me.
Strangely enough, this common, cheerful, easily nurtured houseplant seems to have inspired a raft of sinister poetry. Here, for example, is a found poem by Lori Davis, a poet about whom I can find almost nothing.
Caring for Your Spider Plant
A found poem dedicated to Andrea Yates,
the mother from Texas who drowned
her five children
The more root-bound your plant is,
the more babies it can produce.
The more babies on the plant,
the more attention the plant will need.
Most problems arise from overwhelming.
You will first notice a darkening heart
with a yellow halo,then all-black lower leaves.
If it dries out between waterings,
keep an eye on the foliage.
It will become pale and limp
when it is ready for water.
The root system is large and tuberous,
allowing it to store distress longer
than most hanging plants.
Naturally, the bigger the babies are
the more strain they put on the mother.
Since their roots are already formed,
the babies can be removed
rather easily. To remove babies from the mother,
trim the stem off both mother and baby.
It looks better if there are no stubs showing.
Then you can plant directly into moist soil
or simply place in water, holding them under
until their little roots start to recoil.
and this one, called ‘Last Nostalgia Starting With a Piece of Spider Plant on our Car’s Backseat‘ by Anna Journey: if the last stanza doesn’t demand a sudden intake of breath, i don’t know what does.
But after all that misery, here is a post that stopped me in my tracks. From the website ‘Vision Loss and Personal Recovery‘ it details how, even without sight, a person can enjoy and nurture their houseplants, and the information included is useful for everyone who loves plants. Here, for example, is a very happy spider plant:
‘My heartiest plant currently is a huge spider plant that I bought at a yard sale four years ago. At that time it was unhealthy and about the size of the circumference of a dessert plate. Today it fills a pot that has the circumference of a small laundry basket and is very hearty. I routinely first set it on my office chair at home, wheel it into the bathroom and set it in the tub and then give it a 15 minute shower. It cleanses the leaves and saturates the soil quite nicely. Then I set something under one side of the pot to tip it in order to allow it to drain for a couple of days until I can again lift it and return it to the bedroom window. During its short stay in the shower, I cover it with plastic while Nick, my husband, or I shower so that soap or shampoo does not get in the plant. Nick is never more thrilled than when showering with this monster plant.’
Showering with monster plants? That’s an idea whose time has come.
Photo One (Vittatum) by By Hierbabuena_0611.JPG: Dtarazonaderivative work: Peter coxhead (talk) – Hierbabuena_0611.JPG, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=16710171
Photo Two by By Digigalos – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4746014
Photo Three by CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=66830
Photo Four by By Wildfeuer – Self-photographed, CC BY 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1460984
Photo Five by By Charles Lam from Hong Kong, China (Red Dot) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons