Oh dear. This is not how I wanted to introduce you to ol’ Pete:

The poor little guy has experienced much woe in his short cactus life. First at the hands of a devilish 14-year-old girl. Then from me.

I used to water the plants at a home in Rio Rancho, a mansion would be a better description. The husband (in finance) and the wife (in real estate) liked the look of houseplants but didn’t want to care for them so they hired me several years ago.

I didn’t like their daughter a whole lot (she was 11 when we met). She struck me as spoiled. I noticed she liked to spend her summer days on the couch playing video games and ordering the housekeeper around (“Hey Betty, get me a Pepsi,” no pleases, no thank yous).  She had anything she wanted – a desk computer and a laptop, a huge tv in her room, a closet bursting with clothes, jewelry and gadgets all over her bedroom floor. Who knows, maybe I didn’t like her because I was jealous of all her stuff.

A couple of years went by and one day, I walked into the house, and noticed there was a little stump of a cactus planted in a purple cup sitting on the kitchen windowsill. The Dad was home that day so I asked him where it came from, and he told me his daughter planted it.

Oh, I remember thinking, maybe she’s not so bad after all.

The plant sat on the windowsill for about a month, then it disappeared.

Did she kill it? Did she throw it away? I didn’t know.

Until six months later, that is.

I wanted to find a container for some cuttings I’d taken from one of the houseplants, so I went into their garage to search for one. I scanned the garage and spotted garden equipment on some shelves. I walked over for a closer look, and on one of the shelves, behind some clay pots, there was the cactus in the purple cup.

He was fine. Hadn’t had water or light in six months but he was healthy and vibrant. He looked exactly like he had months earlier.

I picked him up with astonishment. The cup had no drainage but the cactus didn’t mind. That lack of drainage probably saved him in the garage. (In regular life, kids, you should avoid planting cacti in containers with no hole in the bottom because otherwise water can accumulate and drown the plant’s roots.)

I decided I would take him home, put him in a new pot with proper drainage and bring him back to the mcmansion. So I walked out to my car, put him inside, then went back to the house to finish my work, about a half hour’s worth.

Just as I was finishing, the Dad came home and said he needed to talk to me. He led me to the kitchen, then told me he and his wife had decided to let me go. This was when the housing bubble was collapsing. He said that times were getting tougher and they wanted to teach their daughter about financial responsibility, so they were going to pay her a small wage to take care of the plants. He told me she needed to learn values and he thought giving her the plant job would do that.

I think I had to pick my jaw up from the floor before I muttered ok, then turned around and left the house. Quickly.

On the drive home, I grew really angry. Why does she get the job and not me? She was just a kid, she didn’t know anything about caring for plants.

Oh wait, the plant. I had her cactus in my car. And I was mad. I decided I was keeping him. I told myself I wasn’t stealing him – she abandoned him when she threw him in the garage to die. I was rescuing him. Keeping him was the only decent thing I could do – returning him would be like a death sentence for the little guy. Because surely I would take better care of him than some selfish 14-year old girl.

Um, yeah, about that. Not my proudest moment.

Here’s Pete in August, badly sunburned:

Ooooh, that looks like it hurts. Does it Pete?

Ooooh! That definitely left a mark.

And he’s still in that stupid purple cup.

So much for me taking better care of him.

When I brought him home that first day, I had every intention of taking him out of the purple cup. But I didn’t. I would give him a little water once every month or so, every two months in the winter, and he started growing like crazy. I named him Pete. One year turned into two. We were happy.

Fast forward to me going on vacation this summer. A couple of weeks after I got back, one morning I noticed the purple cup was full of water. I mean full, to the top! Someone must’ve thought it would be helpful to water the plants when I was gone. Oh no! No drainage!

He was drowning, so I rushed him outside. I poured the water out, and decided to leave him outside for a little while, to let the warm New Mexico sun help dry him out. I intended to leave him only for the morning hours, when the sun wasn’t blazing. I left for work, and evidently it was far too long before I returned.

I noticed his damaged tips immediately and rushed him back in the house. For reasons that evade me now, I didn’t prune them off once he was safely inside. A couple of weeks later, the damaged limbs became dead limbs.

I changed his name to Calamity Pete.

Then last week, I chopped him to pieces.

I was not about to let those pieces of Pete stay outside in the sun, so I transported them into the house via newspaper, then I let the cuttings scar for a couple of days.

One morning as I was preparing to plant Pete, it suddenly occurred to me that I had absolutely no clue what type of cactus Pete was.

Horrors! How could I call myself a “plant lady” without knowing what type of cactus Pete was?

Easily. You don’t need to know a plant’s name to know how to take care of it. I think that names are important, and that names matter, but a name isn’t going to tell me how much water to give a plant or how much light it needs. I determine those requirements with careful attention to the plant itself (something most 14-year-olds are not known for).

That said, the main reason I don’t know what type of cactus Pete is, is that even though I’ve been working with houseplants in the southwest for over 10 years, I’ve never warmed to cacti. I think they’re interesting, I love how they look outdoors, and I appreciate the delicate flowers amidst the sharp thorns. But I’m a indoor foliage kind of girl. Don’t be mad, cactus lovers!

Some of my Good To Grow clients have cacti (like the atrium at KOBtv), but I inherited those plants, I didn’t choose them. At home, I have had cacti in the past and I always gave them too much attention (i.e., water) and they died.

Maybe Calamity Pete could help me change all of that.

Names really are important, so I decided to ask the Experts. Not my Friday Experts – actual cactus Experts. I sent Hap and Peter, owners of Cactus Jungle, a nursery in San Francisco, and authors of the Cactus Jungle blog, this photo of Pete and begged them to help me:

Who is he? What is he? Were his grandparents Heliocereus? Which do you think hurt worse – being sunburned or being chopped into bits? My email was loaded with tough, personal cactus questions. (Juuuust kidding.)

Peter was gracious enough to answer (thank goodness he didn’t know that part about me not warming to cacti). He’s what he wrote:

Liza,

It’s possible you have a former Heliocereus, which more recently has been moved to Disocactus, but it is more likely a Hylocereus which produce the Dragon Fruit http://www.cactusjungle.com/blog/2009/07/15/pitaya/</

They are very closely related, but Disocactus are generally flattened stems and Hylocereus are not. Given how much hybridizing there has been, the best way to tell is to wait for flowers.  Disocactus are day bloomers and Hylocereus are night bloomers.

Other differences are that Hylocereus are more likely to form large aerial roots, and have large fruit, whereas Disocactus will have small berry-like fruit.

Let me know when you post, and I’ll link to it.

Peter

So knowledgeable! Thanks Peter! I appreciate your help. I’ll tell everyone I named him Pete after you! (Not the calamity part.)

Maybe this tale will have a happy ending after all.

Also, here’s Pete today:

I’ll be back manana, hope to see you here.