By Ginna Parsons/NEMS Daily Journal
When Robert Shands was a small boy living in New Albany, he used to love to watch old Tarzan movies. That’s where he first developed an interest in tropical plants.
“I thought that was so cool to swing from vine to vine through the tropics,” said Shands, 71.
It’s no wonder he would go on to spend his career as a sound engineer in the motion picture industry, living in California for 30 years and in Australia for 10.
“I worked on everything from ‘Dr. Zhivago’ to ‘Tombstone’ and I don’t know how many in between,” he said. “It’s like asking a dentist how many teeth he’s worked on.”
When he was in Australia, he lived right above the Tropic of Capricorn.
“We grew ginger there,” he said. “It had the most beautiful fragrance.”
Today at the home he shares in Saltillo with Becky, his wife of 16 years, he grows banana trees, elephant ears, cannas, gingers and a number of carnivorous plants.
Many of these plants he grew when he and Becky lived in New Albany, and when they moved to Saltillo two years ago, he brought a lot of them with him.
“You want to plant your banana trees and elephant ears around your air-conditioning unit,” he said. “They’ll keep the unit shaded and cool and it will pull less electricity. You can plant your ginger there, too, and it pulls the fragrance through the air.”
Shands has two large banana trees in his backyard and four more substantial ones beneath those.
“And then there are a whole bunch of others growing beneath that,” he said. “When they flower, you have to cut them back and then you get 10 more.”
How to grow tropicals
Shands said some people don’t think it’s possible to grow tropical plants in the ground in Northeast Mississippi, but with a little know-how, Shands said they will thrive.
“At the first frost, you cut them down to the ground and I mean to the ground,” he said. “Then you put your raked leaves on top. The decaying leaves warm the plants. Come spring, they’re going to need help. Get a couple of bags of cottonseed bura and put on top, and that’s the fertilizer. Even when I eat bananas, I throw the peelings out there. They make good fertilizer.”
Shands said as soon as it gets a little bit warm, the plants will start sticking their heads up.
“Then we’ll get a blackberry winter, but that doesn’t hurt them,” he said.
By May, all his tropicals start to green up. By the time summer rolls around, he said, his backyard looks like a jungle.
“Children, the grandchildren, love to play in it,” he said. “You can really get lost under there.”
He grows red, orange and variegated cannas for the color.
“The red attracts hummingbirds and we have lots of them because the house backs up to the Natchez Trace,” he said. “I always feed the birds. I got that from my mother. She always said, ‘Good fortune follows those who feed birds.’”
Carnivorous plants, too
Shands also likes to collect carnivorous plants and is a member of the International Carnivorous Plant Society. He particularly likes to collect Venus Flytraps and Drosera, also known as sundews.
“The sundews produce a sticky substance and they act like an octopus,” he said. “They move and swing and fold around their prey and eat them. They put out an odor that attracts them. They eat mosquitoes, flies, really any insect. They even kill my spiders, and I hate that.”
He even has a plant hospital that houses species from South Africa.
“It’s too hot for them here,” he said. “When the heat leaves, I’ll move them outside and they’ll grow.”
Plants aren’t the only things Shands collects.
His “man cave” is filled with beer steins, antique knives and switchblades, Civil War art, boomerangs and bayonets from World War I and before. He also has a large collection of rare and precious walking sticks from all over the world.
A fireplace in the home that Shands and his wife built is also a collection of sorts: It contains a fish fossil, a shooting star, Tishomingo stone, bricks made by slaves, bricks from the old Tupelo High School and from Jefferson Place and even some from the old Shands Hospital in New Albany where his father, a doctor, practiced.
“There’s even a piece of turquoise from a movie with Elvis Presley called ‘Stay Away Joe,’” Shands said. “He was the only actor who ever took the time to learn my first name.”
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