Depending on the light and my mood, the potted cacti and succulents on my front porch resemble either the strange skyline of a science fiction city or the motley cast of characters in Star Wars’ Chalmun’s Cantina. A tangle of golden snake cactus, the opuntia’s sugar-dusted flat pancakes, and the meaty grey-green succulent leaves of kalanchoe all share the light and the warmth of the west-facing porch. They form a friendly welcoming committee to our visitors, even if most days, the only visitor is the postman.
I don’t pay much attention to my spiny community of survivors, relishing in their low-maintenance lifestyle and only occasionally remembering to splash them with water. Heavy winter rains did most of the work for this year anyhow.
As spring drew the sun higher and higher in the sky, the porch began to bake each afternoon in warm rays. As the soil warmed, the cacti and succulents began to grow in all directions. They grew tall, they grew wide. They began to flow over the rims of their terra cotta pots, and pips of new growth formed on nearly every cactus surface. Some pips dropped into the soil and seemed to immediately take root. The front porch burst full of joyous abundance and growth, and I grew excited. I felt like I had sprouted the greenest thumb. My cacti, some of which I had tended for five years or more, were finally thriving after years of stasis. Their green flesh swelled with stored water. The vigorous explosion felt life-affirming and miraculous.
The little mammillaria hardly kept up, allowing its cacti compadres become stars of the show. Two-and-a-half inches tall and shaped like a pincushion covered in fishhook spines, this laggard had not demonstrated the visible growth of its compatriots on the porch. Maybe it had grown a bit thicker, but I barely noticed a difference from its pre-winter form.
Until one afternoon, as I headed out of the house to run an errand, when that pincushion cactus stopped me in my tracks.
Almost overnight, the unremarkable and unchanging cactus did the unthinkable. It had burst into flower. A multitude of fuchsia flowers, each just a bit smaller than the fingernail on my pinky, had erupted from the diamond-patterned flesh in a nearly perfect ring encircling its top. The sheer surprise made me stop in my tracks, and the color and symmetry of the flowers made me fish my phone out of my purse to take a photo.
Cacti have always been the plant world’s strange cousin, able to survive great heat and drought that would kill most mammals, let alone plants. Cacti are peculiar to the Americas, with hundreds of different species growing in deserts from Canada to Patagonia. Its origins are shrouded in mystery. Some botanists theorize that the first cacti evolved from roses, basing their hypothesis on the cactus flowers that rival showy roses in shape and structure.
History aside, this little survivor on my porch had commanded my respect. While I thought it only bided its time, the cactus grew roots and conserved its energy for a display like I’d never seen before. Seeing those floral eruptions of hot pink made me think that anything could happen in nature.
I sat on the porch steps and counted the flowers while the sun warmed my face and shoulders. There were twenty-three. I counted the petals on one of the flowers. There were fourteen. Up close, I noticed a thin white line along the perimeter of the petals. From a distance, this white line the width of a straight pin vanished in the crazy hot pink pigment, but up close, it formed a pretty detail. I noticed dark brown buds forming above the flowers, and wondered if the bloom had only just begun. I felt alive with possibility, like a witness to God’s work at the cellular level.
Only four things are essential for plants to live: water, light, warmth and some minerals. It’s a modest list, even more so when you realize how little of each cacti need.
I thought about my own feet, planted in the fertile soil of graduate school and life and work and love. For two years, I’ve done little other than read, write, learn and write some more. Maybe I was due to blossom soon too. In that moment, I felt the potential of all the words I hadn’t yet written, of the people I hadn’t met, of the days, hopefully still numerous, left to live on this miracle-filled earth. An earth where one small cactus can spring into fuchsia extravagance one April afternoon without a moment’s notice.