What does it take to grow this plant?
It was the prettiest plant on display, a fittonia, with ivory webbing on its dark-green leaves. Once upon a time, such a fittonia had shared my fifth-floor Manhattan apartment. A Peruvian native, it had thrived in the heat and humidity. But when we moved to suburban New Jersey, the plant turned up its nose – or rather its leaves – at the new environment. Soon it shriveled and died, leaving me wondering what had gone wrong. Unfortunately, many of my Manhattan plants joined the fittonia in a sad sequence of declines until only the hardiest remained.
I didn't want to risk endangering any more delicate, tropical plants, and so limited my botanical collection to tough, resilient types. Until that late-spring morning when the store's fittonia beckoned, that is. Maybe if I'm very careful about light and water, this one will be happy, I thought, as I paid for it.
I placed the fittonia in a carefully selected spot on my deck. And it thrived! Soon the white veins were even brighter against the solidly growing green leaves. By the end of summer it had already been transplanted into a larger pot.
When the autumn days shortened and I felt the first hints of a nip in the air, I brought the fittonia inside. I shuttled it from one location to another to make sure it received enough light and warmth. Watering was carefully regulated. But as winter progressed, the bright leaves grew duller. The white veins faded. And then the leaves started dropping off, one by one. As May approached, there were almost no leaves left. It had happened again – the New Jersey curse!
By the time it was warm enough for indoor plants to migrate outside, there were only three leafless stems left on my fittonia.
"Throw it away, it's dead," everyone told me. But I just couldn't bear to throw it away. So it remained, my silent accuser for having deprived it of a better home.
I put the poor little pot with its fittonia remains in a crowd of healthy winter survivors. It didn't look quite so desolate there, hidden among the other pots.
Whenever I watered my botanical collection, I gave it a quick, apologetic glance. And then one day – I noticed minuscule green specks on the stems. Soon the specks grew bigger, becoming minileaves, complete with bright white veins. My plant had not died after all.
Now it once again flourished, even though it faced some challenges in its outdoor habitat. Squirrels buried their treasures in its soil and then dug them up again, leaving minicraters. Spiders anchored parts of their gauzy webs over a leaf or two. Several varieties of bugs explored the pretty plant.
Yet it grew stronger every day.
The friends who had pronounced it dead several months before observed the fittonia doubtfully, convinced that I had substituted a new plant in the old one's place. I assured them, with utmost honesty, that no deception had been wrought. Finally, they believed me, and we all rejoiced at the profusion of white-webbed foliage.
But I am a realist. I knew that when summer segued into autumn and I brought the fittonia inside again, it might well decline into torpor, as before, leaving nothing but its leafless stems.
And so it has – once again. But now I keep reminding it that summer will return, and it must persevere until then, no matter how cold and dark the winter months become. Because now I know that a few tenacious threads of life can re-emerge into lush, abundant growth.
"If there's life, there's hope."
That was the ending line of a story I once wrote in a high school English class. I don't remember the story's characters or plot. But I do recall the teacher's red-penned remark beside those last few words.
"Phrase too corny ... melodramatic."
No, it isn't. My fittonia proves that.