A Hero Among Cactus

by Julia Ajello


Succulents in a blue bowl, and cactus with a yellow flower in a teal pot

My journey into plants and self-care started when I was sixteen. It was getting close to my oh-so-sweet sixteenth birthday and my mom kept asking me what I wanted. At that age, I think most people want a car, a big party, or money, but what I really wanted was a plant. When I told my mom, she looked at me, a bit confused and said, “okay, get in the car.”


We went to the outdoor section of Home Depot to look at plants. I was looking for a small plant that could weather the indirect sunlight my room receives. I also knew that cacti and succulents were well-known for being the plants that even the worst plant moms could keep alive (this would later prove to be a challenge).


Looking through the selection of cacti was a bit stressful. I wanted to make sure the one that I picked would be perfect. It had to have big bright flowers, look healthy and be succulent and hard to kill. There were only a few options with flowers, ranging in colors from pink, to red, to yellow. I chose the yellow because it seemed so bright and cheerful, it seemed to emit rays of sunshine. The next important decision was which pot it would be housed in for the remainder of its life. I wanted a roomy pot that was understated so the cactus would be center stage. Eventually, I settled on a simple blue pot that would accent the periwinkle walls of my room.


Back at home, I put my cactus front and center on my dresser. I was so pleased to see my new plant in its home, but I soon realized that taking care of a cactus was harder than I had thought. My supposedly un-killable plant required a lot more attention than anticipated. Sure, they’re tough, but I still had to water it (not very often) and move it into the sun (very often).


Cacti have a long evolutionary history spanning millions of years that have allowed them to survive in harsh environments, such as my dresser. Everything about them, from their lack of leaves, to their spines and succulent stems, are specifically designed to withstand extreme temperatures and long periods without rain. These adaptations came about out of necessity. With their drastically changing environment, new traits needed to evolve for them to survive.


There are some parallels between the survival story of the cactus and that of my own. Like the cactus, I found myself adapting to many big changes in my life. When I was caring for my cactus, I was recovering from back surgery that left me not only in pain, but struggling to adjust to a world without the sports I had played throughout my childhood.


But I adapted to these changes. Instead of the rough-and-tumble sport of soccer, I began swimming in the water that is so essential for all life on Earth. I couldn’t swim competitively, but I could still glide through the water with relative ease, which was reassuring to me after I had struggled to learn to walk with the newly placed metal rods in my back that weighed so heavily on me.


At this time too, college was looming closer, and some days, I felt alone, much like how I imagine the cactus in a desolate desert. Many of my friends were deciding on in-state colleges, but I wanted to go farther away. I was choosing to leave many friends and my home behind in favor of a new adventure. This move was challenging at first, but like the cactus, I adapted and stood tall.


Despite the problems I eventually overcame, I still struggled — which is where the story of my cactus picks up. There were many times when my days seemed gray and gloomy due to depression that has plagued me for years. It was these times that I was glad I opted for the cactus with bright yellow flowers. I simply had to look at them to find a bright yellow sun smiling back at me. I found myself watering the cactus, patiently waiting for the flowers to open to their fullest. I would move the plant from my dresser to the windowsill and back again, so I could give it as much sunlight as it could take.


It was then that I realized, why am I providing so much love and care to my cactus but not to myself? I made sure my cactus got enough sunlight, but was I leaving my house to embrace the warm sunlight humans need too? I was watering my cactus when needed, but was I drinking enough water? And most importantly, I was patiently waiting for my cactus to bloom, but was I being patient with myself? I realized the answer to these questions was no, I was not giving myself the care I needed to grow and thrive like I was to my cactus.


After this realization, I decided to change, adapt, and better myself to give myself the best chance of growing and prospering. This is how I was able to overcome even the toughest of challenges, much like cacti. I knew cacti were tough, they’ve had millions of years to evolve to be able to survive in some of the harshest environments on earth, but I had finally realized I was tough too.


Julia Ajello studies biology at the College of Wooster in Ohio with the goal of becoming a medical doctor. Though she studies a lot, Julia still finds time to indulge in both her love of and fascination with plants, as well as spending time outdoors and with friends.


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