There are places in the world so antagonistic toward all forms of life that little if anything lives there, plant or animal. Often located in deserts, we give these places names like Death Valley, Needles, and Parumph.
Deserts. Deserted by all forms of life. Too hot or too cold. Too dry. Too bright or too dark.
So what do we who live in friendly, largely body-temperature environments, do? We search out what few varieties of desert vegetation is managing to pick its meager existence from between the teeth of death in order to sell examples of it in our supermarkets and garden stores. We bring one home, we put it by the window, and we largely forget about it.
There are very few varieties of cacti, so everyone has the same ones that they’ve largely forgotten about. They’re familiar. Let’s face it; if we’d never seen them before we’d probably have little to do with them when we did. But we have seen them before, many times, and we like them because, having proven ability to live in the most inhospitable places on earth, they can probably handle being forgotten about in our kitchens. But they also have another advantage; when they do die, it takes a very long time for their death to become apparent. One day the forgotten cactus in the kitchen unexpectedly attracts your attention because for the first time ever since months and months ago — possibly years — since you brought it home, it’s changed. It’s fallen over, turned brown, shriveled, or just plain disappeared.
Should you have watered it more? Watered it less? Moved it somewhere lighter, darker, warmer or cooler? Hard to believe you could have tortured to death something that has a proud vegetable heritage of thriving on torture and laughing in the face of death.
Some cacti actually look just like rocks. Exactly like rocks, but we don’t put rocks in a pot and ignore those. We prefer something animate, even if probably not conscious. So we prefer to put plants that just look like rocks in a pot, and kill them. Maybe the abuse is part of the equation.
Some cacti, of course, aren’t just defiant in their will to live despite our best efforts to kill them. They’re actually aggressive toward us. As well as those that are obviously dangerous, with features that will clearly stab or cut, there are those that look warm and fuzzy, but that will shed tiny barbed darts into any skin that gets too close. Their hate for us rivals our inevitable indifference toward them, these ugly irritating desert flora we’ve invited into our homes. .
At the other end of the spectrum there are orchids. They come from some of the most life-affirming places on the planet, and we kill those too. Or, rather, most of them are probably dead before we buy them, fresh from disconnection from their Canadian life-support systems. Cacti die because they’re so easily forgotten about; orchids are irresistible, perhaps too beautiful to live and will die despite all our efforts to keep them alive. Orchids suffer from over- and under-everything. Over watered, under-lit, over-fed, under-heated. Too humid. Too arid. Over cared-for. Under cared-for. But our desire to include them in our lives overrides the certainty that they will likely not survive their month-long warranty, even if we believe they are still alive for a further three months or so, clinging on to the belief that we can see a new flower about to emerge from that last, solitary, brown-edged leaf.
So that’s us as would-be indoor gardeners. A thriving cactus and orchid industry depends on the serial herbicide carried out by even the most green-thumbed among us.