by LeAnn Ralph
One late-summer day as I stood looking down at the Christmas cactus on my back porch, I felt sort of sick.
I’d had the plant for 15 years, ever since my mother died. She’d had it for about 20 years before that. And now I was pretty sure I’d finally done it — that I had killed my mother’s Christmas cactus.
It wasn’t a quick death, either. It was long and slow and lingering. In fact, the plant’s demise had stretched out over the entire summer.
I’m not sure why, but one day last spring, I had suddenly decided the plant needed to be repotted. It had been in the same pot for about 20 years, and although I’m not by any means a plant expert, it dawned on me that maybe 20 years in the same pot was long enough.
The plant itself was quite large (I could just about encircle it with my arms), but the pot was on the small side. So, I went about finding a bigger pot. And along with it, I bought a big bag of potting soil. After all, what could be better for a plant than a new pot and fresh potting soil?
I enlisted the help of my husband, Randy, and a short while later, the plant was repotted.
Every summer for the last ten years that my mother had kept the plant, she would set it out on the back step on the north side of the house. The Christmas cactus must have really enjoyed the back step because it always produced plenty of new growth. And seeing as I was now living in the same house, and the plant had been moved into a nice big new pot, why not set it outside on the back step again?
Seemed like a good idea to me.
And I kept right on thinking it was a good idea — until the first disaster occurred two weeks later when I reached into the pot to see if the Christmas cactus needed water. My hand had no more than brushed against a section of leaves — and it fell off.
At first I was a little upset because that particular section probably represented about five years of growth. But then I realized it WAS only one section, and of course, a Christmas cactus WILL shed leaves from time to time.
A few days later, however, when another section of leaves fell off, a faint knell of foreboding sounded in the back of my mind. By the time the fifth and sixth sections of leaves bit the dust, the sense of foreboding had turned to all-out alarm.
And so it went.
Until eventually one day, there was nothing left but a stump sitting all by itself in that great big pot.
“I’ve killed my mother’s Christmas cactus,” I said to my husband. “How could I have done such a thing?”
Randy was silent for a few moments, trying, I think, to find a way to be diplomatic.
“Well, you know,” he said finally, “it WAS an old plant. And no plant can live forever.”
“Thank you, dear,” I said. “I needed to be reminded of that.”
“You’re welcome,” he said.
“Because not only have I killed my mother’s Christmas cactus,” I continued, “I have killed my mother’s THIRTY-FIVE-YEAR-OLD Christmas cactus.”
Smart man that he is, Randy decided to quit while he was ahead.
As I stood there sadly contemplating what was left of Mom’s plant, I tried to figure out where I had gone wrong.
Maybe I had disturbed the roots too much?
No, that couldn’t be it. The plant had come out of the old pot in one clump, and the roots hadn’t been disturbed at all.
Maybe it was too hot on the back porch?
No, that couldn’t be it, either. The thing had spent many summers on the back porch in the exact same spot and it had never done THIS.
What about the potting soil?
Hmmm…the more I thought about it, the more it seemed that perhaps the soil might be responsible. The plant had been in the same dirt for two decades, but then all of a sudden it was flooded with fresh nutrients. “Too much of a good thing” I supposed.
Even though I figured I ought to throw the plant away, I couldn’t bring myself to do it.
A month later, when the first new leaf appeared, I could scarcely believe my eyes.
It took a long time for the Christmas cactus to recover, but finally (after about a year), I concluded that maybe it was going to be all right.
Once the plant was growing well again, I gave slips to my sister, my niece and my sister-in-law. That way, if they started their own plants and something else happened to Mom's Christmas cactus while it was in my possession, at least it wouldn't be gone completely. My mother would be pleased, I think, to know there are four of us now who are taking care of her Christmas cactus, and I'm sorry I didn't give slips away long before this. To be honest, I had always been afraid that removing some of the leaves would injure the plant. Talk about injuring the plant.
The near-demise of the Christmas cactus occurred three years ago, and I am happy to report that last year, the plant finally bloomed again at Christmas with large, deep-pink, frilly flowers that remind me of orchids.
It was one of the best Christmas presents I've ever gotten.