Sparrows and Birds of Paradise

Often as I walk down the street here in residential San José, Costa Rica, I am reminded of the wonderful little plant stores they had in the USA back in the 70s.

Does anyone else remember those? You’d be trudging through the February slush on a sidewalk in an Indiana town, when you’d come upon a shop selling tropical houseplants. A little bell would ring as you opened the wooden door and passed through the portal to a better world. Inside, all sorts of lushness and life that contrasted with the gray gloom of outside. Hanging spider plants tickled your scalp with their green and white offshoots while the upright scheffleras proudly spread their leaves in their characteristic umbrella-like arrangement.

Monstera in yard
3-foot long monstera leaves on the wall of a nearby house. San José, Costa Rica. (c) Robin Grose 

A lot of people prefer flowers, but I’ve always tended more towards interesting foliage. However – and while I loved most all of the plants in those shops – I secretly thought the philodendrons were a little boring. They were so staidly dark green, and they grew so slowly, after all; owning a philodendron seemed no more exciting than nurturing a fake plant. Better were the pothos, possessing similarly heart-shaped leaves but a much more visibly active lifestyle. The ferns, though – Boston, staghorn, bird’s nest – and the plants with variegated leaves like the zebra plant and croton, well, those were positively ethereal. Most all of them required an indoor life year-round (at least in the Midwest!) and careful attention to light and humidity.

For some reason, my long-time favorite was the inch plant, a little unassuming all-green cousin of the Wandering Jew. I think I loved the fact that it grew so quickly, inching over the sides of the pot, and was easy to care for and to propagate. I don’t think I realized it consciously then, but it was a powerful symbol of life to me.

Anthurium on empty lot

Plant growing wild on a nearby empty lot. Some kind of anthurium, maybe? San José, Costa Rica. (c) Robin Grose

Oh, and remember those plant-themed needlework kits? Crewel stitchery was kind of on the same wavelength of cool as tie-dye and exotic houseplants. I wish I still had the eyesight and manual dexterity to do justice to one like this or like this. They look charmingly dated now, but back then they seemed modern and ordinary. (By the way, if you have a finished stitching project like this – or even just the unfinished kit or pattern leaflet, I’d love to see a picture of it!)

Today, when I walk down my street and see many of these “exotic” plants in people’s yards, thriving (not just surviving) outside and with little human intervention, I can almost hear the tinkle of the bell on the plant store door and see the grow lights over their displays. I’ve come to respect the philodendrons much more; they still grow more slowly than many other plants, and in a place where most everything else bursts forth over-exhuberantly (at least during the 6 months of rainy season), their restraint provides a pleasingly restful contrast.

Schefflera as hedge
Scheffleras (“umbrellas trees”) grown as hedge. Club Los Jaúles, Coronado, San José, Costa Rica.  (c) Robin Grose

I chuckle to myself as I recall the lonely, spindly, 8-inch high schefflera I struggled to keep alive as a teen; they are commonly grown as bushes around here, and need frequent pruning. The small patch of Wandering Jew I planted in our apartment’s tiny courtyard has thrived enough to become a nuisance. Awhile back I had to yank out a small row of flourishing spider plants in order to make room for other things I wanted to sow; I was unable to find anyone who wanted to take them – for free.

Occasionally I’ll walk by a leggy poinsettia plant much taller than I am. It’s still a bit of a thrill, but no longer a surprise. Sygonium, anthurium, monstera, various types of orchids, elephant ears (the roots of one type are harvested as food here), sansavieria… these are the yard plants of this tropical clime … as is the humble inch plant, plugging away practically unnoticed as a ground cover, the little brown sparrow of the plant kingdom – and still one of my favorites.


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