A dusty, wretched excuse for a houseplant, a scrawny, lopsided Christmas cactus sat on an end table in every house we lived in when I was a child. It never died, nor did it ever grow. And certainly it never bloomed. I thought it was the ugliest plant I’d ever seen and wondered why my mother didn’t toss it. I suppose it was her depression-survivor thriftiness, like saving brown paper bags and aluminum foil.
I bought my own Christmas cactus when I had a home of my own and it didn’t fare much better. I tend to forget to water and fertilize plants, so it’s no wonder. But I was on a mission: I was going to get my Christmas cactus to bloom. I read everything I could find on the subject—because I tend to read up on things, rather than get things done.
And I tried most of the suggested systems, though fitfully. Come autumn, I might stick the cactus in the closet for varying hours a day or put it under a cardboard box. The routines were complicated, and I invariably got them wrong. And nothing happened. My Christmas cactus failed to bloom, or at best, I’d get one or two flowers that came and wilted far too quickly. I decided that blooming Christmas cacti were the province of horticulturists or the truly dedicated home gardener and not for the likes of me.
Then I visited an elderly couple on a farm in Pennsylvania. And on the end table was the largest, healthiest Christmas cactus I’d ever seen. It was covered with hundreds of deep pink flowers. Maybe thousands. It was drop-dead gorgeous. At that moment I longed once more to have my own Christmas cactus bloom. I asked the woman’s secret.
“It’s easy,” she said. Every spring, after the danger of frost is over, I set it outside in a protected spot. I mostly ignore it all summer. Then come fall, before we have a killing frost, I bring it inside.”
That was it? That was all there was to it? It seemed too easy. I believed that life is always hard, and the more you want something, the harder it is and the more work you have to do.
But I tried her method the next year anyway. I put my Christmas cactus outside in a shady spot near the house and did nothing else. In the early fall I noticed that it had many little buds soon to be flowers. I brought it inside and sure enough, my Christmas cactus bloomed that year. A quite respectable show, really.
Not at Christmas, mind you. I’ve never had my Christmas cactus bloom anywhere near Christmas. But to ask for that is hubris. I need not challenge the province of the gods or horticulturists.
Since then, every year that I’ve followed those simple directions, my Christmas cactus has bloomed. And those beautiful drooping pink flowers cheer my soul.
No doubt there are many other ways to get Christmas cacti to bloom, all of them more complicated and scientific. No matter. I found a system that works reliably for me—provided that I actually do it. And that is the catch, of course. If I put it outside, if I find a spot out of the wind and bright sun, if I water it if we have a very long, dry spell, and if I bring it inside before a killing frost, my Christmas cactus will produce beautiful flowers for me.
It occurred to me that there were lessons for me to learn from this. I tend to make life very complicated and very difficult. How many challenging diets have I not quite followed to the letter? How many ingenious work schedules have I failed to observe? How hard I make my life. How quickly I don’t do what I need to, in my unnecessarily stress-creating schemes. How many times have I bemoaned my feckless ways. My systems are often elegant—but usually doomed.
Life is never easy, true enough. But when I find and follow a simpler, less complicated path, I often bloom like the blossoms on my Christmas cactus.
I say this, and I’m getting better; but lessons come hard to me. A few weeks ago I went to sit with a Hospice patient, as I always do on Sunday mornings. The husband had just brought in their huge Christmas cactus. It had been sitting on their front steps all summer and was now covered with hundreds of buds. Magnificent. And, I remembered with a jolt, my own Christmas cactus was still sitting in a ceramic pot on my dining room table. I’d forgotten to put it outside. The summer and the first frost have come and gone. It’s too late for this year.
But I hope to remember next summer. After all, I’ve found a simple plan that works, that has worked for me for years. All I have to do is follow it. My Christmas cactus will bloom come November, next year.
May you and I bloom too.
Copyright Margaret French
Photo of bloom by Maggie Smith.
(Maggie Smith / FreeDigitalPhotos.net)