My First Plant: The Old Man Cactus

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.)

Happy Blogoversary! Amateur Bot-ann-ist Turns 5 and Ficurinia Celebrates with Some Prickly Pears


Usually I’d post a Wordless Wednesday post here but today is special so I will forgo that formality.

Today my blog turns 5 and I wanted to celebrate. The cheesecake is not yet complete, but the prickly pear sauce for it is, and now you can all hear about my relationship with the prickly pear…

First off, that’s not Pepto-Bismol pink. This is no shy fruit color. It will stain you and stain you well. It’s Barbie pink, hot pink, not understated pink, and it’s loud and proud.

Tasting of apple and watermelon, it’s really a strange fruit. Not sure if these were unripe or older fruits though since they happened to taste more of Aloe vera to me, but they tasted of prickly pear and that’s all that matters. Tasting subtly of prickly pear is the way to go. (Yes, I eat Aloe vera too.)

I will have pics of the chèvre cheesecake that will be drizzled with this stuff up here tomorrow and I’ll include a recipe with it.

So for now, just enjoy the warmth your computer screen is giving off because you’ve stopped to look at my blog. I am happy you’re here and grateful too.

Here’s to the next 5 years!!!

Ficurinia is Sicilian dialect for prickly pear and I chose it as an online name years ago because of a story my father used to tell me about my Sicilian-American grandfather.
As a boy, his family had driven to CA to visit my Grandma Virginia’s brothers. Once over the Oregon/California border my grandfather was looking for every opportunity to stop and eat prickly pear cactus fruits. My father told me that as he sat in the car, pulled over next to the highway, he watched as his dad chowed down and other cars passed them. It embarrassed him that his father was acting like such an “immigrant” and he was ashamed. Later in life, after he’d lost his father, he regretted having felt that way.
I never knew my grandfather since I was born after he died. This story about him always fascinated me though and I wanted to eat the fruit myself to see what it was that drew him to it. During my 20s when I had the opportunity I fell in love with them too. Though I don’t eat them often, when I do, I think of my Grandpa. I think of him eating them while stationed in Italy during WWII and I imagine him eating them along the highways of CA whenever I go in search of seeds.
Through the prickly pear I am firmly connected to what I can only call the most mysterious and special part of myself. I am a gardener and I love plants and it is a gift that comes from somewhere deep inside of me. When I close my eyes to look into the still darkness it is the prickly pear I see and it is the image connected to the tie that binds me to the earth. I should add that it connects me to the kitchen too. But more on those activities later…
Salvatore Amato, soldier (October 31, 1944).
My Sicilian great-grandfather Frank Amato, my Grandma Virginia, my father as a baby, my Grandpa Sam. (Looks to me like someone might have been working in his garden that day.

Volunteer Park Conservatory (Seattle): Part Two, The Cactus House

Unfortunately I was unable to document all of the plants here, and there is a bit of a reason that I must fess up to right now. Due to my complete and total love for so many of these plants as houseplants, I did overload the capacity my home has for their maintenance and upkeep this past year. Let’s face it, there are only so many plants that can stand in the light, and I cannot care for them all—not yet at least.

Believe it or not, this Jade Tree was started from a large cutting back in 1916. Wow.

Volunteer Park Conservatory (Seattle): Part One, The Seasonal Display House

There is no denying that I had a wonderful time this past week up in Seattle. I could go on and on about all the reasons it was so wonderful, but I’d rather now right now. As wonderful as the whole experience was, it was not the kind of vacation that allowed me to rest and I am seriously paying heavily for that right now with my health. If it hadn’t been the fling, it would have been something else, so I am not complaining.
I did the drive back to Portland solo and this allowed me to see some other gardens before I left town. This may seem like a strange idea, but in this case, I’d planned to visit places I usually frequent. I just didn’t want to visit them with anyone who was paying attention to time.
The Volunteer Park Conservatory is a favorite place of mine to visit. Like the other two historic Victorian glasshouses open to the public on the West Coast, no matter what time of year you’re there visiting, it is always amazing. First considered in 1893, the main building was not completed until 1912. Inside there are five main houses: Bromelaid, Palm, Fern, Seasonal Display and Cactus. I am doing each separately so you can see all the pretty pictures.

The first house you actually enter into from the front door is the Palm House. This is a beautiful view from the Seasonal Display House looking back at it. During this trip I kind of rushed into this room first because a seniors group of Japanese-Americans came in for a walk and I wanted to be sure to give them enough space to get around me.

This house had a lot of annuals mixed in with sturdy perennials. The foundation plantings really consist of this large Yucca and a Sansevieria Collection.

The Yucca gigante is very impressive and while the group of senior citizens walked through the room one of the women remarked to a nurse, “Wow, that’s really old. Old like us!” The younger woman could then be heard giggling as the group walked off together. I thought it was kind of funny too.

Low at the bottom you can see a really nice Sansevieria with a lot of white stripes. I guess it’s a Sansevieria trifasciata ‘Bantel’s Sensation’. Time to put that on my fall/winter plant shopping list.

It’s an understatement to say that these groupings are impressive. They are overwhelmingly breathtaking and I felt honored to spend some quiet time with them as though we were attending plant church together.

So before I overwhelm you, I will leave you a taste for what beacons as you reach the Cactus House.

Awe! Those menacingly attractive little guys look a lot like buddies to me. Don’t you think so too?

Volunteer Park Conservatory