Story last updated at 3:55 p.m. Thursday, November 21, 2002

Otherwise undesirable plant keeps on giving

The Kachemak Gardener

by Rosemary Fitzpatrick
I have had the same epiphytic cactus for 17 years. Our daughter, Andrea, brought it home, clutched in her hand, when she was in second grade. And that is the only reason I have this plant. They are strappy, and I really don't like strappy plants. Round, as in African violets, is for me.

It has survived uneven heat, house-sitters, a year in the condo with only an east window, and the move to this house where I have placed it not for its benefit but for its architectural form.

Nevertheless, it blooms. These plants are commonly called Christmas cactus. They bloom for Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas and Easter. There is no arguing with a plant that blooms. But given its penchant for blooming on holidays, I do refer to it as the Holi-day Catcus. For the last four years, I have been meaning to repot this behemoth. It is overpowering the corner that it is supposedly holding down. Anyone who gets that end of the couch has to fight the leaves for light from the lamp.

Into the greenhouse we went, me tottering under the weight of a plant that was almost 4 feet wide. I had never divided this before. There it lay, and I was wondering if this was the end of a chapter in our family lives. I can so distinctly see Andrea's 7-year-old eyes so full of pride that she was bringing home a plant to a mother that she already recognized as one who loves plants.

And what a perfect plant for a project like this. You can break off a couple sections of its segmented branches and stick them in a little pot of dirt, and they will root quickly if kept moist. Very rewarding.

But here I am, 17 years and countless blooms later from this faithful plant, and I am standing over it with an ax. Andrea's 7-year-old self is present with her bowl haircut, corduroy jumper, and clogs; her eyes that are so like mine, her personality so like her father's. There is so much wrapped up in this plant. And then I let go with the ax.

I can see that there are four different sections to the root base, and I just go ahead and quarter what has become a stem of tree-like proportions. Next, using the pruning shears, I cut back the foliage so each quarter is no more than 6 to 8 inches wide. Then, as a final measure, I cut the root ball in half. Drastic. There is almost nothing left to this plant.

I can hardly breathe.

I repot the nicer quarter back into the same black plastic pot from whence it came, and there lies my regret. This plant deserves better. For years I haven't been able to really see the pot, so it didn't have much impact on my sensibilities. But here it is now, very plastic and very black. But I don't think I am too late to replace the pot. After all, this plant has survived an ax, why not repot it when I find something lovely and worthy?

I did all of this in September, and the plant has recovered beautifully. It has new growth but is holding off on setting buds, understandably. It looks fresh and invigorated, ready to face another 17 years of cohabitating with me, a lover of all things that it is not.

I have taken a handful of cuttings and arranged them into a pot to be presented to Andrea when she comes home for Christmas. This plant lives on.

If you have one of these, consider yourself fortunate. If you don't, they are readily available at The Wagon Wheel on Ocean Drive, our local feed and seed store, or Eagle Quality Center. They are inexpensive and provide a showy bloom three or four times a year with clockwork regularity.

I have read that they need special care, such as moving them into a closet for a few weeks to encourage bloom. I have never done that. The plant stays in the same window and blooms heartily. I treat it like all of the other house plants. If yours does not bloom, just move it to another window, find the place it likes, and it will reward you with blooms and interesting, if strappy, foliage. I feed it every week with half-strength Shultz fertilizer and give it a shower a few times a year. Don't give it a shower when it is in bloom or else you will shorten the life of the blooms.

Who knows? You may get more attached to this plant than you ever thought possible.