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.