My First Plant: The Old Man Cactus

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An unnamed fuzzy cactus. Not quite like my original Old Man Cactus, but cute and fuzzy nonetheless.
The first plant I ever owned was an Old Man Cactus (Cephalocereus senilis). I must have been 8 or 9 and it was an impulse buy my mother made out of guilt. I’m not sure now what she’d been dragging me around to do that day, but I recall even now that she bought it just so that she wouldn’t have to hear me complain about the day’s activities.
It was a distraction, a bribe, and it worked—at least until I killed it.
The plant was placed on the shelf you see above, in the same place where you see the replacement plant I just plucked from Portland Nursery the other day. Many of you have probably already guessed that this placement gave the plant a death sentence. Yes. I know now. I did that but I’d wanted it to live with my most cherished possessions—my books. I just didn’t know any better.
I don’t recall how long I strung that plant’s life out for, but I do remember how much my mother hated that plant.
When I told her I was going to write a post about it here on my blog, she remembered that “damn thing” well. For many years my Grandma Ila had collected cacti and succulents and my mother had always found her mother’s groupings—alway in mismatched kitschy planters—to be tacky. As a kid I’d found the whole setup quirky and exotic—not at all like the oatmeal palace my mom had made for us. Her worst nightmare was that I might end up being like her mother. Maybe I did end up a little bit like her, but like all good kids, I’m a lot like a lot of people and I’m myself too.
My cactus had not been picked at random. For a time I’d admired it at the store and I was fascinated that something so cute could have such painful spines. That trigger in my imagination made me create all kinds of stories about it and one of those was the idea that it would protect me but that makes little sense now to my adult mind.
Before the Old Man cactus entered my room I knew little of about caring for cacti. There must have been books about gardening for children but at that time I was hooked on mysteries, mythology and the classical texts my dad passed on for me to read. If I’d asked for a gardening book back then I think both of my parents would have chuckled. The fact those are what I mostly own now, and that the books are all over my home doesn’t surprise my parents at all nowadays—not even a bit. Funny how we grow.
When the plant finally rotted I must admit that I felt a bit defeated. One day it quietly disappeared from the shelf in my room and my mom and I didn’t talk about it. She hated looking at it and I felt badly that I’d failed.
It wasn’t until high school that I started growing houseplants again, and that time, I quickly succeeded with the basics and felt some mastery. During college my collection continued to grow, and my mom bought me more plants, and I still have a few around the house that I’ve owned for nearly 20 years.
This little fuzzy guy is set to have a long life with me now—I hope.
(The Grow Write Guild is a creative writing club for people who garden. It’s a series of bi-weekly writing prompts created by garden author and blogger Gayla Trail. I’m starting out late with the series but hope to catch up soon. It’s just what this blogger needed for some summer fun.)

3 thoughts on “My First Plant: The Old Man Cactus

  1. My first was a monster leaf philodendron, and I was about the same age as you were. There was a nursery and greenhouse within walking distance of my parents house. I didn't know what I was looking at, but I liked it. Despite my horrible track record with houseplants, I still have it.

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