Gardens of the Cross Timbers: Goodbye, sunporch

Becky Emerson Carlberg
Contributing writer
Plants overwintering in Sunporch

The 35-year-old sunporch is gone from the south side of my parent’s 57-year-old home. Over the years it had been the winter refuge for my mother’s plants. They spent their springs and summers on the patio. Not just the multitude of spider plants that decorated every nook and cranny, but a few potted ginormous Philodendron speciosum x Bipinnatifidums, which grew outside under the tree canopy when the weather was warm. These Philodendrons were over five feet tall with leaves equally as large. What was rather interesting were the prop aerial roots the massive plants produced for support. One grower compared the aerial roots to those on Seychelles Stilt Palm trees (Verschaffeltia splendida).

The Stilt palm grows to 25 feet high and requires a humid warm rainforest. It has rings of stiff spines circling the trunk and several aerial roots at the base. The palm can be purchased and grown in very controlled conditions or deep in the U.S. south and coastal regions…..or just move yourself and your tree to the Seychelles Islands east of Kenya and north of Madagascar where it will feel right at home. The Philodendrons (native to Brazil and Bolivia) loved being outdoors, but thrived in their sunporch winter digs where they received good light, warmth from the small gas stove and frequent watering. Their buddies were the Bougainvilleas, thorny numbers also native to South America. Metal trellises inside the pots wrapped with vines made moves complicated spring or fall. Indoors, the Bougainvilleas preferred much less water and stronger sunlight than their Philodendron friends. Flowers on one plant were bright pink and the other had white papery blooms. As with poinsettias, the “petals” were colored bracts surrounding small, white unobtrusive flowers.

Drought-tolerant Mother-in-Law’s tongues lined the brick inner wall of the sunporch. Poor things were so rootbound they bloomed periodically, putting up single flower spikes lined with lovely fragrant greenish-white honeysuckle-like flowers. My mother respected her ‘tongues’ and called them Sansevierias. I wonder if she knew the rigid strap leaves could remove formaldehyde, toluene, xylene and nitrogen oxides from the air. Sansevieria fibers are so tough they have been used to make bow strings. These plants come from Africa, especially Madagascar (what is it with Madagascar?) as well as southern Asia. The molecular phylogenists, people who have excavated the DNA of all living creatures to create elaborate convoluted evolutionary relationships, have put the genus Sansevieria into Dracaena. How wrong. Don’t they know Dracaenas are spindly tree-like house plants my cats scratch their claws on or climb up and snap off the leafy tops.

The Sunporch

My mother was in England when my father decided to build the sunporch. Before she left, they had agreed on a plan for a small greenhouse to be built outside the back of the house facing south. A room with lots of glass panes and east facing door. My dad had been doing extensive research on solar power, heat storage, maximum sunlight absorption and other magical engineering ideas. With my mother not there, he put to use all that knowledge and created an intricately designed engineering feat that could be entered directly from the house. The brightly lit kitchen and utility room became caves as the new addition was built. The nine 2’ x 6’ slanted windows were designed to let in limited sunlight to control room temperature. Large concrete steps positioned to the east just behind the cellar held 16 water-filled painted black metal barrels. They were to absorb the sun’s energy during the day and radiate warmth back into the room at night, keeping it warm. The red-tiled floor was slanted slightly downward for moisture drainage. An outdoor faucet stood in one corner. When it was time to water the plants, the screenless kitchen window was raised and hose nozzle attached to the kitchen sink faucet. The small natural gas heater by the south wall was an auxiliary heat source to be used on especially cold days.

I wasn’t there to see my mother’s response when she saw the sunporch. I do know that in short order a 12”x12” skylight was installed to allow some light into the kitchen. The window had a screen and could be cranked open for fresh air. The skylight leaked from day one. My father tarred it, put metal flashing around it, redid the shingles, re-tarred, had the roof re-shingled and the skylight continued to weep. The recent metal roof which replaced the shingles did nothing to stem the tide. Over the years, the moisture soaked the paneled walls and ceiling. Skylights last 8 to 15 years.

Philodendrons by barrel

Mushrooms, yeasts, and molds are fungi. Mushrooms are visible fruiting bodies composed of large amounts of hyphae (living fungal root hairs) whose purpose is to produce spores. The yeasts are microscopic one-celled fungi that reproduce by budding. Molds are microscopic fungi which spread by fungal root hairs (hyphae). They produce specialized spores. As the hyphae digest cellulose (wood) and other organics, the mold hold expands.

Several types of mold can be found in the home, car or business. Molds illicit allergic reactions such as skin problems, asthma and sinus difficulties. Acremonium mold grows in humidifiers and drain pans. Colorful Aureobasidium may lurk behind wallpaper or on paint. Cladosporium and Fusarium tackle fabrics and carpeting in cooler tempertures. Fast-growing Mucor prefers HVAC systems. Besides infecting plants, a few Alternaria species like bathtubs and leaky sinks.

Ulocladium, a mold that closely resembles Alternaria, thrives in bathrooms and kitchens. The infamous black mold is Stachybotrys chartarum. Black mold is seldom found in nature. It likes human environments, can be very opportunistic in wet situations but not very competitive. Not all strains are toxic.

Mold remediation targets the fungi growing in buildings. Depending on the level of “infestation,” Hepa-filters and vacuums, anti-microbials and even fogging with chlorine dioxide may be employed.

Mold loves water. It grew, hidden behind the sunporch paneling, until it spread to the exterior surfaces. The wood had deteriorated around the windows years before and been replaced. This time the wood was not only rotten but covered in extensive mold growth. When the side walls were taken down, the insulation was saturated with black mold which was currently devouring the wood framework.

The decision was made to remove the sunporch. It was too far gone. Good thing it was separate from the house. Tear down took three days. The barrels and windows were recycled. On the positive side, the red tile floor makes a great patio.

Sunporch gone

Becky Emerson Carlberg, graduate of Oklahoma State (Plant Pathology) is a teacher, artist, writer as well as certified Oklahoma Master Gardener and Master Naturalist. Contact her at