MY CHRISTMAS CACTUS

17 July, 2012

I don’t have many plants in my apartment. Actually, at the moment I have two. One is a jade plant that began as three tiny clippings from a huge jade that belonged to my dear friend Beverley. She died, too young, a year ago March, and I nurture my jade plant as an attempt to keep a bit of her alive in my home. But that’s a story for another day.

My other plant is a Christmas cactus. My mother gave it to me about six years and a half years ago. She also gave one to each of my two brothers when we all gathered for Hanukah. They were tiny little things that she’d gotten as bonuses from her local supermarket that holiday season each time she spent fifty dollars or more on groceries. It being Christmas time, the plant’s green leaves were punctuated with bright magenta flowers. I took it home and placed it on the windowsill in the hope it would get enough light there to survive. My apartment, though bright, faces north and gets no direct sunlight, so plants (at least the plants I’ve fancied) have often been a challenge. I figured that since this was a cactus, it probably didn’t want too much watering. So, I put it on a regimen of letting the dirt completely dry out before watering it. And if I watered it a little sooner, or if it went an extra week because I was away or forgot… hey, it’s a plant. Some months later, I decided that maybe it needed more nutrition than New York City tap water could give it, and bought a little box of Miracle Gro All Purpose Plant Food. I mixed up a half-gallon, and from that point on used that to water my cactus.

The plant thrived. It soon became clear (when I noticed its roots popping through the bottom of its home), that it needed a bigger pot. A while later, it needed an even bigger pot, and than a bigger one than that, and recently an even bigger one. Over time, through observation and by accident, I learned that it apparently really likes to get completely dried out, because that’s when it starts sending out lots and lots of new growth. And watering it when all that growth is visible tends to make it grow faster and lusher. I also discovered that though a Christmas cactus is supposed to bloom once a year (in December, hence its name), my Christmas cactus blooms twice and often three times a year.

About a year ago, I was procrastinating from writing and decided it was time I learned more about the proper care of my plant, so I Googled “Christmas Cactus Care.” There were lots of articles. And as I read them, I began to become overwhelmed. There was clearly a lot more to raising a healthy Christmas cactus than just watering it when it got dry and repotting it when it seemed to have gotten too big for its current home. The entries I read discussed exactly how much water to give it and when, and how often to add plant food and which kind, and how to maintain the proper humidity level around the plant, and how much light it needed and at what times of the day it needed it, and what temperature the air around it should neither rise above nor fall below. Oh, my God! Who knew?! Then came the articles about all the things one needs to do to ensure that a Christmas cactus blooms. This begins with gradually diminishing how much water the plant is given, and then lowering the temperature in its environment to fifty degrees Fahrenheit, and making sure it’s in total darkness for fourteen hours a day. The articles stressed the importance of giving the plant a rest period after its finished blooming. Thirty days in a cool room with limited water. “And don’t worry if it loses a few leaves or joints and appears weak during this period.”

I hadn’t been doing any of this! I hadn’t maintained the proper temperature or humidity or watering amounts. I hadn’t put it in a dark closet for fourteen hours a day. I hadn’t given it a rest period after blooming. I hadn’t been taking proper care of my Christmas cactus at all!

In a panic, I exited not only from the articles, but from all of Google. I sat back, my mind racing. And then it hit me. My Christmas cactus was doing just fine. Better than fine. My Christmas cactus was doing extraordinarily well. When I first got it, a tape measure circling its outer perimeter of leaves measured about ten inches. Now it measures over ninety inches. The leaves and joints are all firm and a beautiful, lush green. And it has never lost any of them, not even after blooming, which it does at least two, and more often three times a year. I didn’t need these experts to tell me how to care for my Christmas cactus, I was doing just fine by trusting my instincts and paying attention to the results.

As I sit looking at my huge, healthy, thriving, gorgeous plant (which currently has over thirty new leaves sprouting), I realize there’s a lesson in our shared success that can be applied to every aspect of my life. When I trust my instincts, when I pay attention to the results I’m getting and only make adjustments when something isn’t working, when I don’t over-think or over-research, when I take the time to enjoy what I have, when I don’t worry or panic if something isn’t working out perfectly, when I don’t try to do everything exactly according to someone else’s book, when I keep things in their proper perspective (hey, it’s a plant) and just live… my life, like my Christmas cactus, is huge, healthy, thriving and gorgeous.

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