For almost all of my life, there has been a Christmas cactus somewhere in every house I have lived in. My grandmother kept a large healthy Christmas cactus in her guest bedroom – the room I used when I spent long weekends and summers at her house. Later, my stepmother Carolyn housed three small descendants of that matriarchal plant on her kitchen window ledge. And since I’ve been a monthly-payment making adult — whether that payment be on rent or a mortgage — I’ve owned a piece of the very same Christmas cactus I knew as a child.
I have striven to take very good care of this plant, as if my grandmother lives on through this botanical, but this isn’t about reincarnation or superstitions.
My home has been the habitat for the “start” Carolyn gave me for over fifteen years. The thing bloomed once ten years ago, almost as if it were celebrating the first birthday of our first-born child with us. One single bloom. Like our family’s one single blossom. And then it never bloomed again. Not for ten long years.
I took very good care of this cactus. I read up on its preferred watering schedule, its favorite fertilizers, everything. I knew as much about how to care for this plant as I did about caring for my own children. I could have consolidated my knowledge into a What to Expect When You’re Propagating book.
Chapter One: It’s the Right Timing and Light. “Place your cactus in a location where it will get twelve hours of bright, filtered (indirect) sunlight and twelve hours of complete darkness. Christmas cacti bloom near Christmastime because nights are longer. To encourage your plant to bloom, ensure that it gets twelve hours of total darkness.” So I did. I found a perfectly illuminated corner for the plant in a corner of our formal living room, which was just off the kitchen and dining room. Knowing that our morning routine began at about 6:00, I made every effort to close down the kitchen and living areas of the house at 6:00 PM so my cactus could have its required hours of darkness, even if that meant relegating my family to the chilly family room in the basement. I wanted that sucker to make me some flowers.
Chapter Two: Don’t You Dare Move it, Move it. “Once your Christmas cactus has gotten acquainted with its new location, refrain from moving it. These plants are very sensitive, and shouldn’t be relocated often.” Check. Even though my family was sanctioned to living underground, I did not move the cactus. Perhaps it would blossom any … minute … now.
Chapter Three: Proper Temperature and Moisture. “Now that the lighting and location are set, your cactus will need proper temperature and moisture to yield its flowers.” Yeah. Okay. Enough was enough. Somehow, creating the right conditions for this plant had made my family and me prisoners of our own home. Year after year. Christmas after Christmas. Our relationship had developed into a very unhealthy one where I was doing all the giving, even running my life around ITS comfort and happiness. My nurturing had evolved into full-blown spoiling, enabling. And so, after a decade of fruitless years, I stopped caring. I wasn’t trying to romance the darn thing, after all; I was simply trying to nurture it.
The cactus lived on in its ideally illuminated corner, nearly forgotten. Recently, a friend with whom I work posted a picture of her Christmas cactus on Facebook. It was in full gorgeous bloom. Exotic orange and pink stamens burst forth in florescent color, and I was terribly envious. Timidly, the next day at lunch, as I asked her how to reveal her secret.
“Oh, I just keep it on my sunporch and bring it in the house when it gets too cold out there,” she professed over her Lean Cuisine. I told her my regretful saga.
“Sounds like you just need to shock it into blossom,” she advised.
I knew she was right.
That evening, I carried the heavy plant to my sunroom. It was already getting cold at night, but we hadn’t had a real hard freeze yet. I put up an artificial Christmas tree in its place.
The weather remained fairly mild through the holidays, and when my husband and I carried the seasonal décor back to the garage, I brought the cactus back to the living room. Nothing. About a week went by, maybe longer, and I noticed one single pink protrusion peeking from one of the plant’s flat leaves. I rejoiced. The single bloom had returned. The ten-year drought had ended! With each passing day more and more baby buds began to appear. Soon, over a dozen beautiful flowers dazzled me.
Aren’t we like this cactus?
Aren’t we often pampered into content existence, resolved to remain, unmoved, in our corners? Don’t we sometimes think that the world revolves around us? Don’t we frequently do just enough, just enough to maintain the status quo, just enough to survive?
What if we ventured out? What would happen if we changed our routines? What might occur if we left our comfort zones?
Couldn’t we too be shocked into blossom?