The Christmas Cactus

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.

Listen to the story here.

Maggie Smith /

Copyright Margaret French

Photo of bloom by Maggie Smith.
(Maggie Smith /

14 thoughts on “The Christmas Cactus

  1. Great story!

    “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.”

    How true. I also do better if I don’t force things – as in the complex Christmas cactus formula. The people in my life hate that regimented way. I forget to follow through too.

    I have a Groundhog’s Day cactus. It looks just like a Christmas cactus and it sits in the same spot in my house all year long. Sometimes it’s a Thanksgiving cactus, but usually a GH Day bloomer.

  2. Reminded me of the monster sized Christmas Cactus my grandmother had and of the original Walton’s show when the mother ( played then by Patricia Neal) found hers she had put away n the basement and brought up blooming for Christmas.

  3. And amazing how many me-mother-Christmas-cactus stories there are! When I think about my mother’s window sill…
    Thanks for waking memories, while I was delighting in your reflections and introspections!

  4. Oh, how I can relate to this! I have a Christmas cactus (at least that’s its name; it never blooms at Christmas) that was my mother’s. When it does bloom it is drop-dead gorgeous. So, of course, I want it to bloom. After reading all the “how-to” articles I’ve decided that your approach is by far the best (when you remember to do it). I plan to follow your advice.
    Thanks for a great post.

  5. Barbara W. I have a Christmas cactus also,but it never blooms at Christmas. I tend to forget to water it also,but it does bloom. This past year I decided to pay attention to when it bloomed,it didn’t bloom til Groundhog day and I told my husband I was going to call it a Groundhog day cactus, I didn’t know there really was a Grounghog day cactus. I loved your story Sue.

  6. for all of you out there that make everything so complicated, and think that every single little thing needs attention..just remeber that we as humans have lost a lot of instinct because we feel as though since we are “so smart” we must do everything right..but think about this, every single living thing on this earth has its own cycle..the wild plants outside do just fine without any human involment, so do the creatres and weather etc etc..the “Christmas Cactus” comes from the jungles of South America and is called flor de mayo (flower of May) because when we have fall/winter here they have spring/summer..when it comes to plants let nature take its course and not you..don’t over try everything that’s when stuff NEVER works out =) anyway, great story and so inspirational.

  7. Dear Margaret, What a refreshing little story about your Christmas Cactus. I actually was dusting ‘around’ my 2 cacti, which have always looked very forlorn, and I decided to google some assistance. There I found your story. I laughed because just last evening, my husband and I returned from a week of visiting grandkids. What a surprise to find 2 beautiful, bright sunflowers – growing in the ‘weed heap’.! They had ‘died’ and so I threw them on the pile of clippings. The flowers and plants that I had been feeding and weeding did not look nearly as good as the 2 resurrected sunflowers.
    Another little Christmas Cactus story. My Mom had placed her CC in the laundry room one year after it had finished blooming. One day as she was cleaning, she bumped the cactus and it fell behind the dryer. She intended to ask someone to retrieve it for her, but a few days passed, and she forgot. You guessed it! The holidays rolled around, she remembered the cactus. She peered behind the dryer and saw the most beautiful, in full bloom, Christmas Cactus. The moral of all of these stories is: Nothing wrong with some good, healthy neglect.
    My CCs are tucked in the ivy outside under a big shade tree. Fingers crossed 🙂 Kathy Carilli, Bridgeville, Pa.

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