Over the years, I’ve come to grips with the fact that I’m not very good with houseplants. Possessing a degree in agriculture, it’s likely not best to broadcast that around, but the facts don’t lie. I’ve tried and have many empty pots to show for it tucked away in my storeroom. I’ve had little luck with African violets, I’ve killed many a generously donated Ficus seedling, and was tough on a peace lily to the point that it eventually rested in its own peace. I did have a little English ivy I named Thomas during college that did stay alive for four years…only to perish during my move to our ranch. I really do have much better luck growing things in the great outdoors in flowerbeds and pots, so I don’t entirely have a black thumb. But at this time of year, when the temperatures drop and the snow flies, I have but two green plants thriving in my house. My favourite is my Christmas cactus.
Not just an ordinary Christmas cactus, this particular one is a legend. It started out as a slip from the Kohlman Family Christmas Cactus, and I carefully rooted it in water before planting it in a pot. The mother plant is more than 70 years old, and originally belonged to my great grandmother Kohlman. When she passed away sometime in the 1940’s, it somehow made its way under the supervision of her daughter-in-law, my Grandma Kohlman. A busy farm wife with fifteen kids, no electricity or running water, I can’t imagine my Grandma put caring for this potted plant straight to the top of her priority list. Still, she made sure the plant was prominently placed on an oak table in the family’s small living room out of the draft. Once, when the oil burner went out overnight in winter time, it came very close to freezing. Surviving this brush with frost, the cactus also managed to withstand dozens of active kids who were cooped up during winter blizzards or summer storms. It likely missed out on the odd watering and I doubt it was overly fertilized. But the plant not only survived, it thrived. It bloomed without fail each November in the month leading up to Christmas, and sometimes, if the conditions were right, it would even bloom at Easter. My grandma took it with her when she moved into town almost thirty years later, again placing it in a bright spot in her living room picture window. It flourished there too.
While my specimen looks healthy, it rarely blooms. It actually has two blossoms on it as we speak and this is only the second time in eleven years that it has done so, making it a relatively noteworthy occasion in my life. I’ve researched strategies to achieve blooms. I’ve read that you can water the plant less frequently to induce blossoms, or move it around to different areas of your home at certain times of year or even lower the thermostat. One “how to” guide mentioned putting it in a closet for a specific period of time each day which seemed to me to be a lot of work, so I never explored this tactic. The only thing I really do is water it when I think of it, and make sure it has a healthy coating of house dust.
Many of my cousins and aunts and uncles have their own plant from the Kohlman Family Christmas Cactus. It’s a small, low maintenance yet beautiful living piece of heritage that we can share. To be perfectly honest caring for the plant is a bit of an afterthought to me, but I’m grateful that it wasn’t to my Grandma Kohlman. Thanks to her, I can enjoy these two rare blossoms (a month later than normal) and reflect on our unique family legacy.