Chapter XI. Nature Under Glass

The next morning Amy asked Mrs. Clifford to initiate her more fully into the mysteries of her flowers, promising under her direction to assume their care in part. The old lady welcomed her assistance cordially, and said, "You could not take your lesson on a more auspicious occasion, for Webb has promised to aid me in giving my pets a bath to-day, and he can explain many things better than I can."

Webb certainly did not appear averse to the arrangement, and all three were soon busy in the flower-room. "You see," resumed Mrs. Clifford, "I use the old-fashioned yellow pots. I long ago gave up all the glazed, ornamental affairs with which novices are tempted, learning from experience that they are a delusion and a snare. Webb has since made it clear to me that the roots need a circulation of air and a free exhalation of moisture as truly as the leaves, and that since glazed pots do not permit this, they should never be employed. After all, there is nothing neater than these common yellow porous pots. I always select the yellowest ones, for they are the most porous. Those that are red are hard-baked, and are almost as bad as the glazed abominations, which once cost me some of my choice favorites."

"I agree with you. The glazed pots are too artificial to be associated with flowers. They suggest veneer, and I don't like veneer," Amy replied. Then she asked Webb: "Are you ready for a fire of questions? Any one with your ability should be able to talk and work at the same time."

"Yes; and I did not require that little diplomatic pat on the back."

"I'll be as direct and severe as an inquisitor, then. Why do you syringe and wash the foliage of the plants? Why will not simple watering of the earth in the pots answer?"

"We wash the foliage in order that the plants may breathe and digest their food."

"How lucid!" said Amy, with laughing irony. "Then," she added, "please take nothing for granted except my ignorance in these matters. I don't know anything about plants except in the most general way."

"Give me time, and I think I can make some things clear. A plant breathes as truly as you do, only unlike yourself it has indefinite thousands of mouths. There is one leaf on which there are over one hundred and fifty thousand. They are called stomata, or breathing-pores, and are on both sides of the leaf in most plants, but usually are in far greater abundance on the lower side. The plant draws its food from the air and soil--from the latter in liquid form--and this substance must be concentrated and assimilated. These little pores introduce the vital atmosphere through the air-passages of the plant, which correspond in a certain sense to the throat and lungs of an animal. You would be sadly off if you couldn't breathe; these plants would fare no better. Therefore we must do artificially what the rain does out-of-doors--wash away the accumulated dust, so that respiration may be unimpeded. Moreover, these little pores, which are shaped like the semi-elliptical springs of a carriage, are self-acting valves. A plant exhales a great deal of moisture in invisible vapor. A sunflower has been known to give off three pounds of water in twenty-four hours. This does no harm, unless the moisture escapes faster than it rises from the roots, in which case the plant wilts, and may even die. In such emergencies these little stomata, or mouths, shut up partly or completely, and so do much to check the exhalation. When moisture is given to the roots, these mouths open again, and if our eyes were fine enough we should see the vapor passing out."

"I never appreciated the fact before that plants are so thoroughly alive."

"Indeed, they are alive, and therefore they need the intelligent care required by all living creatures which we have removed from their natural conditions. Nature takes care of her children when they are where she placed them. In a case like this, wherein we are preserving plants that need summer warmth through a winter cold, we must learn to supply her place, and as far as possible adopt her methods. It is just because multitudes do not understand her ways that so many house plants are in a half-dying condition."

"Now, Amy, I will teach you how to water the pots," Mrs. Clifford began. "The water, you see, has been standing in the flower-room all night, so as to raise its temperature. That drawn directly from the well would be much too cold, and even as it is I shall add some warm water to take the chill off. The roots are very sensitive to a sudden chill from too cold water. No, don't pour it into the pots from that pitcher. The rain does not fall so, and, as Webb says, we must imitate nature. This watering-pot with a fine rose will enable you to sprinkle them slowly, and the soil can absorb the moisture naturally and equally. Most plants need water much as we take our food, regularly, often, and not too much at a time. Let this surface soil in the pots be your guide. It should never be perfectly dry, and still less should it be sodden with moisture; nor should moisture ever stand in the saucers under the pots, unless the plants are semi-aquatic, like this calla-lily. You will gradually learn to treat each plant or family of plants according to its nature. The amount of water which that calla requires would kill this heath, and the quantity needed by the heath would be the death of that cactus over there."

"Oh dear!" cried Amy, "if I were left alone in the care of your flower-room, I should out-Herod Herod in the slaughter of the innocents."

"You will not be left alone, and you will be surprised to find how quickly the pretty mystery of life and growth will begin to reveal itself to you."

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As the days passed, Amy became more and more absorbed in the genial family life of the Cliffords. She especially attached herself to the old people, and Mr. and Mrs. Clifford were fast learning that their kindness to the orphan was destined to receive an exceeding rich reward. Her young eyes supplemented theirs, which were fast growing dim; and even platitudes read in her sweet girlish voice seemed to acquire point and interest. She soon learned to glean from the papers and periodicals that which each cared for, and to skip the rest. She discovered in the library a well-written book on travel in the tropics, and soon had them absorbed in its pages, the descriptions being much enhanced in interest by contrast with the winter landscape outside. Mrs. Clifford had several volumes on the culture of flowers, and under her guidance and that of Webb she began to prepare for the practical out-door work of spring with great zest. In the meantime she was assiduous in the care of the house plants, and read all she could find in regard to the species and varieties represented in the little flower-room. It became a source of genuine amusement to start with a familiar house plant and trace out all its botanical relatives, with their exceedingly varied character and yet essential consanguinity; and she drew others, even Alf and little Johnnie, into this unhackneyed pursuit of knowledge.

"These plant families," she said one day, "are as curiously diverse as human families. Group them together and you can see plainly that they belong to one another, and yet they differ so widely."

"As widely as Webb and I," put in Burt.

"Thanks for so apt an illustration."

"Burt is what you would call a rampant grower, running more to wood and foliage than anything else," Leonard remarked.

"I didn't say that," said Amy. "Moreover, I learned from my reading that many of the strong-growing plants become in maturity the most productive of flowers or fruit."

"How young I must seem to you!" Burt remarked.

"Well, don't be discouraged. It's a fault that will mend every day," she replied, with a smile that was so arch and genial that he mentally assured himself that he never would be disheartened in his growing purpose to make Amy more than a sister.