Goodbye Little Friend

Many years ago, when I lived in Covington, Louisiana, I photographed a wedding, and the bride’s mother, Caroline Sontheimer, gave me a single reed of horsetail fern as a pass along plant.  I’d never seen a horsetail fern before and I was smitten by it. She said hers had come from Mignon Faget, a New Orleans jewelry designer. I took the reed home, sat it in water until it rooted, then for Mother’s Day, planted it in a pot outside. It was a foot high, about the width of my little finger, green and translucent in places when the sun was low, segmented with fringed crowns, and I marveled at this plant. Because I was in a bout of depression and feeling pretty disconnected from my daughters, I projected a lot of hope onto it: its survival would be my own. Not only did the plant survive, it flourished; I even took several reeds up here to New Hampshire when I moved, rooted them, put them in a pot and watched it grow in a sunny window. In the summer, I put the pot outside, and then, because it was very large, decided to risk leaving it out, buried under a lot of maple leaves and a blanket; it survived the winter nestled against the basement on the south side of the house. It’s survived two winters there, in fact, and even grew into the ground and ha,s via runners, popped up in a straight line. Imagine, my southern plant right here in Concord.

So, last winter, again in the doldrums as I’d been that Mother’s Day decades ago, I came upon a tiny cactus on the reduced produce tray at Market Basket. Stubby, three-sided, with a “head” of what looked like white fur in that perfect mathematical arrangement of sunflowers centers, for instance, and a tiny identical version perched askew, as if a little flower or a jaunty hat.  All winter–and they are so long here in New England–I ooohed and aaahed over it, and gently lay my hand on the barely prickly “fur,” cooing my appreciation each time I passed it. The “head” grew in size, and all was fine until a few weeks ago, when I noticed the “body” was not as green as it had been, and there was a small dry, brown circle on it.

Now, I am one of those plant-moms who, I’m learning–and I am so ashamed I can hardly bear to mention it–over-waters. I discovered this when I finally repotted several of my non-cactus plants. Sodden at the bottom, yet dry looking at the top, they were utterly root-bound. All winter, my geraniums have been stagnant, barely putting out new leaves, certainly not blooming.  Geraniums, for goodness sakes! Same for my gardenia, hibiscus, jasmine. And other than my Christmas cactus, I’ve never had a succulent before. Well, I do have an aloe. I’m a waterer, as I said, and I don’t speak succulent, I suppose.

When I saw that brown spot, I thought the little plant needed repotting.  After all, it was in the same tiny pot I’d bought it in last winter. So, I found the remnants of a bag of “succulent mixture,” got a bigger clay pot, and a few days ago, nestled the little plant into it and surrounded it with more mixture, and set it outside in filtered light. Each day, the “body” lost more green color. Finally, this morning, I saw it had collapsed, the little head resting on the soil, the body oozing. It is a loss, truly. My friend who’d cheered me all winter, who I hoped would accompany me through the next to come, has died. And all day, I’ve thought about it, wanting to write a tribute, an elegy, and I decided to begin a blog so that I might do that.

I removed the body from the head and nestled that atop the soil. I have no idea if it will root, or if it, too, will shrivel and ooze. I will be sad if it does, but I will transfer that need to place hope onto another plant, perhaps another tiny, jaunty cactus. Maybe I’ll learn more about their care; I hope so. I don’t want to kill another one (if that’s indeed what I did with this one).

So mote it be.

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3 responses to “Goodbye Little Friend

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  2. Patrick

    Here’s what I found out about cactus.
    Last year in November we were driving through West Louisiana and came upon an entire fenced in field of prickly pear. Very carefully we pilfered a piece of one, spirited it away in the trunk and continued our trip to IKEA in Houston. When we got back to N.O. we put it in a pot of soil……and ignored it. Abandoned it like a red-haired stepchild. When we watered the gardens – front, back and side – we passed the hose across the pot (on the front porch) but didn’t linger for more than a second. It seemed right because cactus is a desert plant and requires little watering. Within a month our platter of prickly pear has developed a second “leaf” and in two months the second was as big as the first and the spikes were growing. It was more than just alive, it was thriving. So this is what I take away from our cactus experience. Stick it in ground (probably inside that far north) and don’t futz with it. Be stingy with watering. In summer give it outdoor sunshine, in winter give it a sun room.

    • Thanks for the encouragement. I will. Perhaps I’ll buy new soil for it. The bottom is a little mushy, so I don’t know if it will work. The thing is, there’s no body, only the little head that was on top of the body. Going to try, though. And of course, it will come inside. When I repotted it, that was its first time to stay outside.

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