Never Trust an Englishman with a Cactus

Apr 6, 2018

Credit Andrew Kreider

Did you know it’s possible to kill a cactus?  I didn’t… until I did.  My friends, never trust an Englishman with your cactus.

Last fall, the day she left for college, my daughter decided to buy me a going-away present – a plant for my cubicle at work.  Let’s get you something simple, she said.  How about a cactus?  That should be easy enough for you to take care of.

Working our way through the cactus section at the grocery store, we avoided the gaudiest offerings, the ones with fancy-colored tops or extravagant blooms.  Instead, we opted for a spiky looking blue-collar character in a black pot.  The label gave no information except to say that he was “4 inches – green foliage,” and that he was from Canada.  Looking back, in all likelihood, he was probably a misplaced aloe plant, but we’ll never really know.  I put him on my desk and said, “we need to give this guy a proper name.”  After running through the usual cactus-related monikers (Spike, Dusty, Bob) we settled on Cortez.

In the weeks that followed, I would send my daughter regular photo updates of Cortez, each time with a speech bubble on a post-it note.  Some days, he offered words of wisdom.  Other days, it was song lyrics, or punchlines from TV shows.  It was a lot of fun.  Cortez was part of the family.

But then I began to notice that Cortez was looking decidedly peaky.  His spiky leaves were becoming discolored, his highest points were drooping.   It is entirely possible that he was a sickly plant from the beginning.  I recognize this.  But in response to his plight, I am ashamed to admit I made a terrible mistake.  At the end of a long day, I looked at Cortez and thought – this plant doesn’t look so well, it must need water.  And without stopping to consider the wisdom of what I was about to do, I went to the sink… and thoroughly watered my cactus.  Not just a drop or two – I put the pot under the faucet and ran the water until it came streaming out the bottom.

The next day, the left side of the plant had fallen over onto the ground.  Dismayed, I removed the fallen leaves, and turned the pot so that the damage was minimized.  I took a picture and sent it to my daughter.  I told her that after a slight mishap, we now had Son of Cortez.  Just as witty as his forbear, just not quite as leafy.

The new guy picked right up where Cortez had left off, continuing to dispense daily wisdom by text message.  However, within a week or so, it became apparent that there was something rotten in the state of Denmark.  Son of Cortez began to list alarmingly to the right.  While trying to adjust his position, I succeeded only in removing another section of leaves.  What was once a proud and upstanding plant had been reduced to a green sprig of four shoots on a single stem.

No matter, I arranged the remaining greenery as best I could, and snapped a photo, introducing my daughter to ‘Lil Cortez.  It was kind of a street name, with scrappy attitude like an up-and-coming boxer.  He was a fighter all right.  ‘Lil Cortez made it through the next few weeks, proudly spitting the knowledge on a blizzard of post-its.  I kept him off the water, and he brought the wisdom.  But then in December, he finally succumbed.  One morning I came into the room to find him slumped over.

Carefully, I removed his stem from the pot.  One leaf still seemed to have some life.  So as a final gesture of defiance, I planted the tip of that leaf in the middle of the pot.  One inch of green spike, sticking from the dusty soil like a shark fin.  I named him Four-Tez.  He was perhaps the hardiest of the entire Cortez line.  He made it till almost Christmas.  Finally, I gave him a quiet burial in the trash can beneath my desk and replaced him with a small artificial Christmas tree.

I’m telling you all this because this week, after several months of mourning, I’ve decided to try again.  I have a new aloe plant on my desk, and a new attitude.  This little guy’s name is Rocky – and that’s how his soil is gonna stay.  At least for the most part.

My friends, never trust an Englishman with your cactus.  You can stick that on a post-it note.

Music: "Water of Love" by Dire Straits