Ritual The Cactus Mother: Nine Plants, Zero Kids
I used to tell people I needed to write a novel before I could consider offspring. I have written one novel. I am considering purchasing a fern.
At a party, a friend tells me to start popping out kids soon. The sooner, the better. I laugh and tell her that I can barely take care of my cacti. My kitchen is filled with green clones.
The first cactus came into my life about two decades ago. At the DIY chain, these spiked thumbs of green were the price of a Snickers bar. It was in the north of Scotland and everything smelled of salt-water and petrol, or that’s how I remember it. This is my first memory of cacti—no desert, no camels, no California sun, only the high warehouse ceiling and rows of nails. My father had taken us on some errand and this was our bribe. If we made it through his penciled shopping list without whining, we could choose one each to take home.
I chose a cactus that was as wide as my wrist. The pale white spines stood along the ridges. My brother chose a spineless succulent, round as a rose.
This was before #plantsonpink trended on Instagram. It was before Instagram itself. This was a time when photographs were not for food or potted plants but for tense family holidays. So I cannot look at a photograph and tell you how many spikes my cactus had. I do remember that I sat in the back seat as we drove home, carefully touching the tip of my finger to each needle.
My brother planted his succulent outside, where it grew new green rosettes. I kept mine indoors. It had no children.
I meet a woman who tells me she plans on having three children and she’d better start soon. She wants to publish a book first. A friend tells me she will never have children: She’d rather have many novels. Another friend with two children and two novels says she is trying to decide which she wants more, a third novel or a third child.
I used to tell people I needed to write a novel before I could consider offspring. I have written and published one novel. I am considering purchasing a fern. The fern will need more water than a cactus, but I hope I can manage.
Cacti, like many plants, reproduce both sexually and asexually. They evolved in the Americas, but their name was borrowed by Linnaeus from a prickly Spanish artichoke; Linnaeus mistakenly believed they were related. In fact, each plant quite separately found the need for spines. It is believed cacti spines evolved from leaf buds.
My mother says cacti are bad feng shui. But my mother likes to lie to white people about feng shui. Once, on a train, we sat opposite a woman with hair the color of stretched toffee who was studying feng shui. My mother told her not to put a mirror above her bed, don’t have any cacti, and shut the toilet lid—it lets out demons. The woman nodded and took notes in small and careful handwriting.
Afterwards, I wanted my mother to tell me about feng shui. But she shrugged and said she made it up; she was bored. My mother is half-Japanese, half-Chinese. She is not a Taoist, but she has shiny black hair, which was enough authority for our fellow traveler. My mother told me it was innocent fun and common sense advice. A mirror might fall onto a sleeper’s skull. It’s always better to put the toilet lid down, bad spirits or not.
So, what about cacti? What’s so dangerous about them?
You could fall on one, she said. You want softer things in your house.
I thought about having invited spines onto our kitchen counter.
I go to the doctor, who scans my ovaries. There are complications. She tells me it would be good to consider having babies soon. As soon as I am ready, I should come to her.
Last year, two Chinese men were arrested in Japan for stealing twelve million dollars’ worth of succulents. Haworthia, a relation of the aloe, is native to South Africa. The plants are common enough, but these had been bred over generations to gain the most pleasing color and form.
The South China Morning Post asked Dr. Hayashi, the president of the Haworthia Society of Japan, what he thought had happened to the plants. He said, “It’s obvious that they’re being sent to China, where they’re even more popular than here.”
Members of the society were advised to take protective measures to look after their plants.
I don’t believe I am capable of looking after anything in a permanent way. I don’t have pets. I don’t have children.
But I have succulents. The succulents are planted in bowls that I have cracked and cups I have chipped. This is an attempt to rescue objects that I once found beautiful. There is a bowl with an indigo arc that I dropped in my enamel sink. There is a turquoise mug with tiny raindrops that my mother gave me when I first moved back to this country. A jagged crack runs down the side.
A Washington Post article features millennial plant ownership. An article for the Independent claims millennials have plants because they can’t afford kids. A prominent comic artist starts selling tote bags that say Plant Daddy. On Instagram, #Succulents has almost four million photographs at the time of writing. #Cactus has six million.
These hardy handfuls of green are trending. This may say something about the nurturing skills my generation does not possess. Or it may speak to an economic system that makes more ambitious gardening a daydream for many. Or maybe some women feel that liking a flower makes you look weak but that a cactus is strong. Or maybe it says that someone seized a merchandising opportunity. Or maybe it’s just a fashion, like the Victorian fern craze and the 1950s geranium fad. Or maybe these plants are just green and small and precious. They ask for very little and they return gifts of viridian, pink, lime, emerald, sage, grey, slate-blue, yellow, purple.
I went to a writing retreat and my partner bought me a succulent to keep me company. It had tiny flowers. Each one was smaller than a Tic Tac. They were palest pink. I put it on the windowsill, where over the few weeks of my stay it learned to lean toward the sun.
Then I packed up, and went home. On the train, I realized that I’d forgotten the plant.
At home, I looked at my remaining greenery. I pressed my fingertip into the soil. If my finger sinks, there is water. If it remains on the surface, there is drought.
I do want to learn to care.
To allow a succulent to have a child:
1. Cut a rosette from the stem.
2. Leave it out to dry and callous. (A soft cutting may rot.)
3. Line a cup with pebbles, and layer over with soil.
4. Place the cutting on the soil.
5. Wait. New leaves will grow around it.
Someone once told me if I had a child, I’d lose it. Someone once told me if I had a child, it would know all the best stories. Someone once told me if I had a child, it would be beautiful. Someone once told me if I had a child, it would have an eating disorder. Someone once told me if I had a child, it would fix me. Someone once told me if I had a child, I would never know anything like it.
I have plants.