My childhood Christmases were often spent at her home, a big old farm house in central Iowa, which was built by my grandparents, Merrill and Gladys Nichols in 1941. My mother tells stories of how they first built the chicken house, then lived in that while together they tackled the much more challenging job of building the farmhouse. I loved that house! It was surrounded by gardens, which thrived under my grandmother's care. I will never forget the sight of her peonies and gladiolas blooming, or the swathe of irises that led to her front door. I have such fond memories of climbing the crab apple tree, and plucking blooms from the trumpet vine to make elf hats for the kittens that were always darting around each spring. Grandma lived alone there for years after my grandfather had a debilitating stroke.
The inside of her house was no less green and lively. She had quite a collection of African violets, all displayed in special little pots on glass shelves in front of the windows. Her African violets were really her pride and joy. At one time she had 30-35 different African violets, before she decided they were getting out of hand. What really impressed me, however, was her Christmas cactus. This was no tame little specimen in a charming little pot. It was a huge, drooping, trailing affair, and every Christmas, it was covered with the most brilliant hot pink blooms! It was big enough to decorate like a Christmas tree, but it provided its own glorious ornaments. She also had striking bi-colored pink and white Thanksgiving cactus that my mother gave to her when she was in the hospital with heart trouble. (See the links at the end of the article for an explanation of the difference between a Thanksgiving cactus and a Christmas cactus.) My mother got a few starts from her years ago, and shared this picture of her plant with me for the article.
Eventually, as Grandma got older, she decided a move to town was prudent. She scaled her gardening down drastically, mostly limiting it to plants she could keep in pots on her patio. She had custom plant stands designed with rings to hold each plant up off the ground. The Christmas cactus, of course, enjoyed a place of prominence, and seemed to thrive on the filtered sunlight on her back patio, just outside the sliding glass doors. As cold weather approached, she moved her jungle indoors, where it guarded the patio doors like a pack of overly-friendly watchdogs.
I remember staying at her house one Christmas as a newlywed. I was helping her set things out for breakfast, and was shocked to see her pour the contents of her pot of leftover cold coffee from the previous day into her watering can, fill it with water, and pour it into her Christmas cactus! I probably blurted out something like,"Grandma, what are you doing? Won't that hurt your plants?" I still remember the twinkle in her eye when she reminded me that it was mostly water and organic matter, and that some plants really liked a little extra acid. She did the same with leftover tea. I certainly couldn't argue with her results. The Christmas cactus was as green and lively as ever! It was even larger than I remembered as a child, and still sporting a shocking number of blooms.
The day came when Grandma could no longer stay in her own home. She was no longer driving, and as a very sociable person, the isolation was hard on her. She decided the time had come to move into an assisted living facility where she would have some of her meals provided, and also more opportunities to socialize with other people. I was sad to see her give up her independence, but she sincerely enjoyed it, and announced that she wished she had done it years ago. It was difficult for her to downsize from a whole household full of furniture to what would fit into a one bedroom apartment at the assisted living facility, but she commented that she'd rather know the family heirloom furniture was going to family members who would love and appreciate it now, rather than when she was gone. I inherited a beautiful oval cherry wood table that my grandfather had made for their farmhouse kitchen. It is one of my most treasured possessions.
The assisted living facility provided wooden decks with some raised beds, so the residents could still enjoy a little gardening, but her days of keeping a jungle in her living room were over. I think it was as hard for her to part with her beloved house plants as it was to part with the furniture. My own green thumb was developing nicely by this point, so I came home with a whole carload of plants, along with a notebook with the names by which she knew them: a three-foot tall Jade plant, which she said was over 50 years old; a pot of Mother-in-Law's Tongue that reached almost 5 feet tall; a bushy purple and green Wandering Jew; a ficus tree from my grandfather's funeral; and yes, her beloved Christmas cactus. Unfortunately, it didn't cooperate by blooming right when I needed pictures for this article, but I thought I'd share a picture of it, on the cherry table made by my grandfather, just to illustrate its size!
My grandmother passed away in 2004, but her Christmas cactus, which is nearly as old as I am, is still going strong on my enclosed front porch. I've started new plants from it many times for friends and family members, as she also taught me the joy of sharing well-loved plants with others. At least once a year, sometimes twice, it lets loose with a display that puts my own decorating efforts to shame. And every now and then, when I find a little cold coffee in my pot in the morning, I smile, and share a little pick-me-up with her Christmas cactus in her memory.
Special thanks to my mother, Edythe Hill, for checking my facts and dates. She shared the pictures of my grandmother in her garden, and her offspring of my grandma's pink and white Thanksgiving cactus.
Thanks, also, to Dave's Garden members sandy130 and trilian15, who provided pictures of their Christmas Cacti in bloom in Plant Files. Sandy130 provided first picture at the top of the article, and trilian15 provided the other picture of blooms and buds on a Christmas cactus. Both show what my Christmas cactus looks like when in bloom.
To learn more about the difference between a Thanksgiving Cactus and a Christmas Cactus, and about how to care for these lovely and long-lived plants, please refer to these other excellent articles here on Dave's Garden:
Thanksgiving Cactus, by Marie Harrison
Will the Real Christms Cactus Please Stand Up? by Tina Bolin
Christmas Cacti Care, by Geoff Stein
(Editor's Note: This article was originally published on December 23, 2011. Your comments are welcome, but please be aware that authors of previously published articles may not be able to respond to your questions.)