Shirley Lanigan - The wrong plant in the wrong place

Finding the right job for an awkward plant is a difficult business but one which has to be taken care of if ownership of the plant in question is not to become a nuisance. I have dealt with several of these over the years, sometimes with success, sometimes so badly an accusation of cruelty to plants could have been made.

Finding the right job for an awkward plant is a difficult business but one which has to be taken care of if ownership of the plant in question is not to become a nuisance. I have dealt with several of these over the years, sometimes with success, sometimes so badly an accusation of cruelty to plants could have been made.

There was one particular plant, years ago, that will always spring to mind. It was a cactus. I found it sitting on the plant table in the Country Market. It was a pretty,a good sized specimen of a succulent. Its green surface was covered with short, golden hairs. It was also much bigger than the other plants on the table and it looked to be a real bargain. It was cheap, too cheap. Alarm bells should have been ringing loudly. But the bells didn’t ring. I assumed I was looking at a bargain and snapped it up. If I had paid closer attention I might have seen the lady behind the table give look of victory and a small air-punch as I left the shed. I arrived home and put the plant on the kitchen windowsill over the sink.

Shortly after this I found myself distracted by a plague of scratching. A rash appeared on the inside of my wrist. Soon after, it started to move to the inside of the elbow, up along my arm and on to my neck. I couldn’t figure out what it was but it was an annoyance. After a week or so of this, for some reason the windowsill had to be cleared. While doing this, my arm brushed past the cactus. Its fine hairs touched me, and then I knew what had caused the rash. It was those soft hairs. They were lethal. I spent the next few hours trying to pull out the tiny thorns. It was almost impossible. They were skin coloured and invisible. But they were still scratching me. Washing was useless. Nothing seemed to work. And then I discovered why the ‘rash’ had been spreading. Some of the hairs had found themselves onto a jumper and from there they began migrating. The jumper and several other pieces of clothing had to be scrapped but after another week of irritation the nuisance had worn itself out, more or less. So what to do with horticultural public enemy number one? I was certainly not keeping it indoors. I couldn’t give it away. But it was a plant and I could hardly dump it. So I did the least bad thing and consigned it to an outside north-facing corner, in behind other plants, away from dogs and children. Maybe it would live? Maybe not. But I liked to think that I was not killing it, just putting it in solitary. It survived a long time. When eventually it did shrivel up, it ended up dried and desiccated on the fire.

I have not been able to look on the Country Market stall with anything like the same goodwill as I once did.

I have another nuisance plant annoying me at the moment. It is a Cyperus eragrostis. It is like the cactus, a lovely plant. But there the likeness ends. The cyperus is related to papyrus. It is an unusual plant, a little like umbrella spokes on top of a tall stalk. It is native to South America. I have seen it thriving in damp bog gardens near the Kerry coast and in west Cork in the sub tropical gardens that do so well down there. It does not fare so well in the cold wastes of the midlands however.

I bought mine as a house plant and it has given nothing but trouble. I have been told it is a good cold greenhouse plant but it is not such a good warm, bright kitchen window plant, where it becomes leggy and soft. The tall stems are constantly keeling over so it ends up looks like an untidy mess. I try to keep it wet but whenever it dries out it goes limp and pathetic. This has been a case of wrong plant wrong place.

But unlike the cactus of dreadful memory the cyperus is a nice plant. I really didn’t want to kill it, even by slow neglect. So it has been sitting on the sill sulking for too long, making the place look untidy. Then I read a piece of advice in Christopher Lloyd’s ‘Foliage Plants.’ His advice was to drop the cyperus in a weighted pot into the pond for the summer months where it should thrive. It should then be hauled back out just before the first frosts arrive, and brought indoors. Transferring it into a clean new container, it should hopefully manage indoors over the winter. I have a fear that it might become a monster plant over the summer and hard to wrestle with when it comes to bringing it back indoors. But that is probably wishful thinking and if it does get too big I will cross that bridge when I come to it. In the meantime, I am hopeful that the nuisance becomes a useful and good looking part of the pond this year