This story is a century or so too late in the telling and is missing pieces needed to qualify it as bona fide North Dakota history.
But it’s as honest a story as my cousin, Jeannette Wolff Miller, can tell about her wonderfully resilient house plant, a torn petticoat in St. Paul, a young woman taking a train to her Kidder County, N.D., homestead a century ago, and, well, please listen up.
This tale finds Jeannette at its midstream in the early 1990s starting a new dietitian’s job at St. Benedict’s Health Center, a nursing home in Dickinson, N.D. There, she learned the family of a very elderly patient and Dickinson resident was selling all her household possessions in an estate sale. Jeannette and her husband attended the sale and bought a Christmas cactus, which she says “was overwatered and becoming a limp biscuit,” and she didn’t know she could save it.
Months later, Jeannette learned a daughter was visiting the patient (called Cactus Lady here, since Jeannette can’t recall her name). She caught up with the daughter and asked her to tell the elderly patient her cactus was thriving. The family was delighted with the news, and Jeannette invited the Cactus Lady, daughter and a son or son-in-law to her house for lunch and, of course, to see the renewed cactus.
That’s when they told Jeannette of the cactus’ first 80 or so years in the family.
It begins around 1920, perhaps during or before World War I, with the Cactus Lady, then a young woman, and her husband moving their limited cache of crated possessions with them on the Northern Pacific Railroad from St. Paul to their homestead near Pettibone, N.D. The 1909 Homestead Act and subsequent ones granting farmland tracts to settlers spurred much of the Dakotas’ settlement in the early 20th century, and there were perhaps a million or more such railroad trips for those first generations of settlers on the Great Plains.
Trouble was, the railway company’s 500-pound limit on the crate would have excluded a potted Christmas cactus that Cactus Lady wanted to bring to her North Dakota prairie home, the family members told her.
But no two ways about it, the Christmas cactus (Schlumbergera bridgesii, which tends to bloom abundantly around Christmastime) was going with this homesteader one way or the other. “So she lifted her skirt, tore off a part of her petticoat, moistened it, wrapped (the plant) in the fabric and put it into her apron pocket,” Jeannette relates. “Women then would wear their aprons even if they weren’t in the kitchen,” she says.
“The cactus became a part of their household,” Jeannette reports, for more than a human lifetime near Pettibone and later in the woman’s home in Dickinson. The Cactus Lady’s offspring told of growing up with mom’s treasured plant at home and, for example, of the winter when the house lost heat, freezing and killing off the plant’s outer branches.
To let them clone their own cactus offspring, Jeannette cut two slips of the cactus for the daughter and her husband, who returned with one to England, and another for a sister in Atlanta.
Plants are usually considered ephemeral, transient life forms, Jeannette says, “but this cactus had proven itself to be as stalwart as someone settling the land” in Kidder County.
What’s more, there were to be further lives for this potted plant not just in England and Atlanta, but since her earlier decade in Dickinson, Jeannette tended to her Christmas cactus many years in her Eau Claire, Wis., house, and lately in her home north of Baltimore, where she moved last year to live near her sons.
My wife, Betsy, has a couple of slips from it, too.
And Jeannette likes to think someone among her friends and family will tend to the Christmas cactus “when I leave this Earth.”