Big Jim

Felder Rushing’s old rubber tree that he calls Big Jim just turned 45 years old. 

Big Jim, my old rubber tree, just turned 45 and still looks great because of a unique Doctor Who ability to start over when necessary.

When the tropical tree, which wants to be big enough for the Swiss Family Robinson to live in, gets too large to fit in my cabin, I simply cut it back to leafless brown stumps. Looks shocking, but within weeks, out sprout strong new stems with lustrous leaves. I’ve done this maybe 10 times over the decades.

That’s not really harsh; we do it with overgrown azaleas, crape myrtles, roses, hollies and other shrubs all the time, and they come back stronger than ever.

And this is a good time, actually getting close to the last call, to whack old shrubs back. This is especially true of spring blooming azaleas, blueberries, and the like, which need extra time to set flower buds for next spring. Be sure to come back after a few weeks to “tip prune” the new growth to make it bushy instead of long and leggy. No pruning past mid-August.

But back to Big Jim. He and a couple others have survived under my care since the 1970s, which is more testament to their desire to survive than my gardening skills. Though it’s possible to nurture and coax finicky plants such as orchids, African violets, poinsettias, and the like to survive indoors, if neglected just once, they can quickly decline and become fit only for the compost.

Plants grown indoors need simple things: Warmth, decent light, pretty good potting soil, an occasional feeding, watering when needed, and — this is the real kicker for most — humidity.

Plants can tolerate more or less of all those, with varying results, especially if kept in the bright light near south or west facing windows or right in east windows. Some with broad leaves will get leggy but can survive at least for a while, even near office lamps.

And some don’t need a lot of water, if they are in decent soil, just an occasional soaking. And anyone who has ever neglected an old plant will agree that many can go years without fertilizer, though they don’t perform all that well.

But air-conditioning and central heating pull away the last straw for those plants that are native to tropical jungles or misty mountains and simply can’t survive without humidity. And misting only helps for a few minutes, until it evaporates.

What I do is cluster plants close together, sometimes pots in pots, which looks more natural but more importantly creates a humid micro-climate, and make sure the dry air from the AC and heater is diverted away from their foliage.

But my real success is in choosing plants that tolerate all those conditions, including low humidity. And there are more than enough to satisfy most plant lovers.

By the way, potted plants do not improve air quality appreciably, unless you live in a closed space station. Air conditioning, or just open windows or doors, negates the minor benefits. Really. But they do lift spirits of folks who are otherwise out of touch with nature and need a greenery lift.

My short list includes rubber tree, sansevieria, dwarf shefflera, philodendron, dracaena, pothos, sedums, chinese evergreen (aglaonema), wax hoya, aloe, night blooming cereus, dumb cane (dieffenbachia), begonias and a newcomer simply called ZZ plant. There are others, of course, but I’ve grown these for many years and find them to be close to unkillable near a window, out of the heater draft.

And all those can be rejuvenated every now and then with a hard whacking. Old Big Jim is my proof.

• Felder Rushing is a Mississippi author, columnist, and host of the “Gestalt Gardener” on MPB Think Radio. Email gardening questions to rushingfelder@yahoo.com.

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