Plant Companions: The Story of Scarlet, Violet, and Arabella

Arabella’s magenta blossoms remind me of tiny dancers twirling.

I’m an unabashed plant geek, nerd, lover, whatever you want to call it. Plants are in many ways, more my “people” than humans.

Despite my abiding affection for plants of all kinds, especially those native to the sagebrush sea of the intermountain West, I’ve never been much of a keeper of house plants. With one notable exception: Schlumbergera, the genus known in the horticultural trade as Christmas cactus, even though these plants are not cacti, and they bloom in May in their native range in Brazil, where they’re called “Flor de Maio.”

My relationship with these epiphytes native to the dry tropical forests along Brazil’s southeastern coast goes back to 1985, when then-six-year-old Molly wanted to buy her daddy a plant to brighten up his office in Olympia, Washington. She and I visited a grocery store with a floral department where we both fell in love with Scarlet, a slip of a Schlumbergera with about three short stems and flowers as bright as the name Molly chose for her.

Scarlet as a teenager, in full bloom

Scarlet lived happily on Richard’s desk until we moved to Boulder a few years later, and there she preferred our sunny apartment living room. Where she was joined by Violet, who we found abandoned and squirrel-nibbled in the yard. (Schlumbergera are not outdoor plants in northern climates.)

Violet, named for the delicate color in the throat of her flowers

Scarlet and Violet moved with us from Boulder to Iowa to New Mexico to our eventual long-term home in Salida, Colorado. Scarlet thrived in Salida, and in fact, grew so large that we took to decorating her many branches with Christmas lights and ornaments as our holiday “tree.” (Violet, always more delicate, never grew large, but she bloomed every year quite faithfully until Richard’s brain cancer.)

When Richard began hospice care at home in September of 2011, Scarlet was living on a flagstone shelf in our bedroom, in view of his hospital bed. She began to bloom early that year, and he chuckled many times about the queer resemblance of her buds to parrot beaks, and smiled over the beauty of her scarlet flowers. (Violet didn’t bloom that year at all.)

One of those parrot-beak-like flower buds

A few nights before Richard died in late November of 2011, I woke in the dark to the sound of a crash. I got up groggily and searched the house, but couldn’t find the source of the noise.

In the morning, there was Scarlet on the concrete floor of our bedroom, her pot shattered and her stems broken. How she fell from her secure spot on the wide shelf six and a half feet above the floor, I do not know. But it surely felt like a leap of grief to me. She was always Richard’s.

I gave away cuttings from the undamaged stems to friends and family, and potted up a piece of Scarlet for me. She rooted and grew, but Scarlet never really recovered from the fall and Richard’s death (nor did I, for that matter). Violet began to diminish that winter too.

Fast-forward six years and my move home to Cody. I brought a few small cuttings from both Scarlet and Violet. They didn’t look great, and I wasn’t sure they’d make it.

Late that winter, my Cody friend Jay’s dad died, and Jay and his wife Connie asked if I would like the enormous Schlumbergera from his dad’s house. After my experience with Scarlet and Violet, I was hesitant. But I finally agreed. Which is how Arabella, then just finishing her glorious long season of bloom, came to live in the corner of my dining room, between the two large sets of windows.

Arabella basking in her light-filled corner spot.

Arabella, named for her abundance of hot-pink flowers that look like dancing girls caught in mid-twirl (those are her blossoms in the photo at the top of the post), settled right in. She thrived through the disruptions of electricians, plumbers, painters; and even through the shock of removal and replacement of the banks of windows on either side of her spot. And then around Halloween, I spotted the first of hundreds of buds appearing at the ends of her arching stems.

When Arabella began to bloom in early December, I dug out a string of colored lights and some of my favorite Christmas ornaments, and carefully decorated her branches, happy to revive the Tweit-Cabe Christmas-cactus-as-Christmas-tree tradition.

Arabella as a slightly psychedelic Christmas tree

When Connie and Jay came for dinner a few days later, Jay told me the story of Arabella’s life. It seems that his mother was teaching at the Hardpan School, a one-room school that moved from ranch to ranch depending on the availability of space, up Southfork outside Cody in 1935. The school was at the Hardpan Ranch that year, and when his mom visited the McCulloughs, who owned the ranch, she admired the Christmas cactus in their log ranch house.

Twenty-one years later in 1956, when Jay was in first grade in Meeteetse, 30 miles south of Cody, his teacher, Mrs. Smith, who with her husband had bought the Hardpan Ranch from the McCulloughs, brought her class slips from that very same Christmas cactus Jay’s mom had admired. He gave one cutting to his mom (Jay and Connie still have that huge Schlumbergera plant) and one to his grandmother.

The latter is Arabella, who now lives quite happily in the corner of my dining room. So my days are graced by the company of a plant special to my friends and two generations of their family, and with a heritage that goes back many decades in the place I call home.

There’s an even deeper connection: Arabella and I, and this wonderful house I am bringing back to life, all share a birth-year. We all came to be (or root, in Arabella’s case) in 1956, which makes us each 61 years old. I’m aiming for many more years together.

Arabella guarding my Christmas presents!

Oh, and what of Scarlet and Violet? Over the summer, two of the slips I brought north rooted in their shared pot. One grew big enough to produce one flower just after Halloween: Violet. I think the other slip may be Scarlet…