There is a town named Bethlehem housed within our grand parade of states. I know this because I was raised there, in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.
One can't grow up there without becoming well-versed in allusions to the biblical story of the nativity. To this day, it is known as the "Christmas City." There is a star situated on its highest hill, steel-framed and illuminated at night. I seek the skyline for it each time I head home to visit my parents, and each time I exit the highway onto those old, familiar back roads in the wee hours of the night, the star is shining brightly from its perch. My hometown is a sight to behold during the Christmas season. Moravian stars glitter in every window, and a spirited Christkindlmarkt (German for "Christ child market") awaits shoppers every holiday season.
Thanks to all this, I know Christmas thoroughly. I can sing all the verses of "Morning Star, Oh Cheering Light." I have been raised to call what amounts to a nativity scene a "putz house" (more German). I intuitively know how to bake nut tossies, "forgotten" cookies, and kiffles.
It has come to my attention, though, that even with all this knowledge, I do not know how to identify, much less grow, a Christmas cactus. I figured this out when K-Mart closed its stores in Southern Vermont.
I was a frequent shopper at the Bennington K-Mart before it closed in 2018, and I was sad to see it go. When they ran their final liquidation sale, I'd pop into the store regularly to see what treasures I could dredge up. It was on one of those visits, in the furthest corner of what was now a forlorn and empty garden center, I found a parched, wilted plant labeled "Christmas cactus." Next to it, a parched, wilted plant tagged "climbing ivy."
Deciding my odds were better on reviving the succulent, I picked up the pot and, passing the iconic blue light special for the final time, headed to the registers.
Since that purchase, I have attempted to figure out what makes it tick — at first, researching how to keep it alive, later how to encourage a blooming cycle. I was curious as to what type of flowers my living, but not yet thriving, cactus might produce.
The resources I consulted said I should stress the plant to spur blooms. The cactus needed to think it was dying so that, feeling the need to reproduce, it would produce more flowers. I hesitated to do this as it seemed demanding of me to insist that the plant I had rescued from death now need mass-produce pretty flowers on command.
To stress the cactus into a cycle of bloom in time for Christmas, I was instructed to begin a regiment of extended darkness and cool temperatures long before December. Instructions suggested I water the plant infrequently and occasionally use a fertilizer. If I followed specific steps, I was guaranteed a heavily flowered and intensely colored Christmas cactus in time for the holiday.
But this plant had already been through so much, having survived a going out of business sale.
I decided to muddle through without stressing the poor thing. I placed it near the two avocado plants in my living room for company, as a hopeful reminder to myself and the cactus that I had not yet killed off the avocados, despite having no real idea of how to raise them.
Fast forward to early December of this year, and lo and behold, there was one perfectly formed pink blossom.
My cactus and I celebrated.
This should not be construed as instructions on the ethical care and feeding of a succulent. Really, it was my own laziness that led me to deflect forcing a bloom cycle. I allowed the plant the freedom to be itself, and still, it bloomed.
I inspected the masterpiece of nature, observing the single flower's details. Eventually, I noticed the stacked leaves upon which the blossom hung, and the rows of tiny barbs on the ends of those leaves: a clue of crabs' claws.
Why, then, had I thought it was a Christmas cactus?
I recalled that my plant care books explained that a Christmas cactus has rounded leaf edges, whereas the Thanksgiving cactus — which looks and behaves like a Christmas cactus, but is not the same plant species — has prickly edges.
There was no doubt: My cactus was a mislabeled Thanksgiving cactus.
I also recalled reading that it's challenging to purchase real Christmas cacti in stores, as they often confuse the two plants. The best way to secure a Christmas cactus is to begin with a clipping, preferably from an heirloom plant.
My "Christmas City" heritage was of no use to me in determining my cactus type, but in the end, it didn't matter. Standard cactus care applies for either variety. Problem solved.
Now I call it a "holiday cactus" and continue to let it bloom when it may, appreciative that I don't have to remember to water it before traveling back home to Bethlehem this Christmas season.
Tina Weikert contributes to Southern Vermont Landscapes from Bondville.