Growing Things Underground

I would like to introduce you to my Christmas cactus. She’s huge and she blooms year round and she has an interesting history. You may not know this, but I was once an underground worker. I worked in two different mines. One, the Star Morning, was the deepest mine in the United States, and I believe it still holds the record even though it has been out of production for decades. The other was the historic Bunker Hill Mine in Kellogg, Idaho. That is where my cactus and I first met in 1981.

 

Plants grow very well underground, as long as they have light and water. Incandescent light works just fine, and the lights rarely go out in a mine. One limiting factor is the temperature. The deeper you go in a mine, the hotter it gets. I worked close to 7,000 feet below the surface in the Star. The rock was warm to the touch, and the water coming out of the cracks was also warm. (We had a cooling system that made it possible to work, but it was still warmish.) The upper levels of a mine, however, are cooler and since plants love moist environments with a constant temperature, it wasn’t unusual to see sprouted orange trees here and there, although they didn’t last long due to the working environment.

There were places, however, where it was safe for a plant to grow, and one of those was the hoistroom, where the spools of cable that raise and lower the cages (elevators) were located (the Bunker Hill had an inclined shaft, so they transported men and ore in a slightly different way, but the theory is the same). I visited the hoistroom of the Bunker Hill shortly after I was hired, and there, on a table near the operator’s station, was a blooming Christmas cactus. Being a unapologetic plant thief, I pinched off a small start. It was the beginning of a long relationship.

The hoistroom cactus wasn’t the only thing grown in the Bunker Hill in the 1970s.  Thousands of trees were grown in underground greenhouses on the levels of the mine where the temperature was between 75-90 degrees. The humidity was favorable and there were no plant diseases present. All that was needed was fertilizer and light.

A University of Idaho forestry graduate student, Ed Pommerening, was the brainchild behind the operation,  and in the first year of operation, 4000 lodgepole pine, scotch pine and ponderosa pine were grown. Within five months, the trees were five inches high–70% larger than trees of the same age grown in conventional surface greenhouses. After the first successful year, the capacity increased to 13,000 trees. And after that…I do not know. The mine closed in 1981, shortly after I went to work there, and I assume the greenhouse closed with the mine.

But my cactus and I keep on keeping on. We’ve shared a lot of history and she’s the only plant I’ve had for my entire married life. She and I will celebrate our 40th anniversary this September.

 

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Jeannie Watt raises cattle in Montana and loves all things western. When she's not writing, Jeannie enjoys sewing, making mosaic mirrors, riding her horses and buying hay. Lots and lots of hay.

35 thoughts on “Growing Things Underground”

  1. wow that is awesome – I too have an old plant my heart shaped philadendron dates back to 1999 his name is Herman and he has been here with me at this job since 2007!

  2. Interesting story I didn’t know they grew trees underground. I know they grow mushrooms underground because there was an old rock query that had a lot of tunnels and someone started a mushroom farm in those tunnels. Today its a water plant. If you have heard of High Bridge spring water those tunnels is where the water comes from because they are full of natural springs. So the water is processed and bottled to sale.

  3. The longest living plant I know is one I have. I’m not sure what it is, I think some type of ivy. I’ve had it at least 25 – 30 years. Your Christmas cactus is beautiful!

  4. Welcome today. Wow that is so cool. I have one of the Christmas cactus, but it has not bloomed in the four years i have had it. I have a Thanksgiving cactus that is less than a foot away and it blooms all year. So interesting that you worked in mines. My sister is like you. She has been know to dig up whole plants. Once she came with me to visit my son at college. He gave us a tour. In one area, we saw some lovely plants. Among them was a one foot weed. Definitely out of place. LOL My sister dug it up, wrapped the roots in some paper she had in her purse and put it in her purse. My son was so embarrassed. He kept a look out in case some one came. This was about 12 years ago. She still has this plant/weed and it is thriving. Every time we visit my sister, our son looks at the plant and just shakes his head with a smile.

  5. Wow! How interesting! And, I love your Christmas cactus! I have two from my Mom, and one that I received in January from a friend. Mom even gave parts of hers to my sisters and my nieces. It sometimes blooms as early as Thanksgiving, and sometimes not until January.

  6. Jeannie, Your Christmas cactus is beautiful! Thank you for sharing this fascinating post.

  7. Wow, and WOW!!!! Good morning ! You are such a brave lady. My husband worked in a uranium mine near Gallup New Mexico, he was there for about a year and a half. Thank you for sharing your awesome story about you and your Beautiful cactus and Congratulations on 40 yrs! I had no idea they could live underground, I have a Christmas cactus, it is doing well, it will give me a couple of blooms but it is growing very good, we have had it for about 5 yrs, maybe one day it will be as beautiful as yours. Have a Great week and stay safe. God Bless you and your family and may your Beautiful Christmas keep on blooming for you, what an Awesome friendship and beautiful memories you have with your cactus. 🙂

  8. Jeannie, That’s a gorgeous plant and I’m wondering if you made the beautiful mosaic on the sewing machine…

  9. Jeannie, I’ve tried to get my Christmas cactus to rebloom but it never has. Years ago, my mom told me to put it in a dark closet the first of October but that didn’t work. Now I see that it’s the cold temps that the plant loves. Congrats on keeping yours for 40 years! Oh my gosh. That’s amazing.

    • Linda, I’m stingy with water. Once I forgot her during the craziness of the move and she went limp, so I soaked her pot in a sink of water overnight and she burst into heavy bloom within a month. Also she loves being repotted.

  10. Wow, how cool.

    I’m not too far from Kennett Square, PA, where they grow mushrooms in the dark. They have mushroom “houses,” long bunker-like buildings with no windows, which provides ideal growing conditions for this “mushroom capital of the world. “

  11. Your cactus is beautiful! I have one that blooms at Thanksgiving and again in the spring and another that blooms around Christmas and Easter but not all year. I do think letting them get a little dry for a few weeks or months even and then watering them well makes them bloom. I wonder if any one is still experimenting with plants in mines instead of above ground greenhouses. It sounds like that might be a way to save energy.

  12. My mom has 5 small Christmas cactuses, pink, red and white. They all decided to make flowers at the same time this year (usually they don’t quite manage to do that), so I decided to pollinate the flowers (all you need to do it are some Q-tips). I haven’t yet planted the seeds the cactuses made.

  13. Happy early anniversary!! It is beautiful. That is wonderful that you have been able to keep the cactus alive for 40 years. Thanks for sharing your history as well as the history of the cactus.

  14. What a wonderful idea. I wouldn’t have thought the hoist room would have enough space to start that many plants, but it wonderful that they could. It would be nice if even if the mine were no longer operational, that the hoist room could be made available for the University to continue its program. The climate conditions would still be the same.

    Thanks for an interesting article. An early happy anniversary to you and your plant.

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