The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia


December 12, 2012

Hold on to your Bloomers

How to increase the shelf life of your Christmas foliage

Schlumbergera, mumbergera. Most recipients would take a Christmas cactus (genus Schlumbergera) and hide it away in the corner wrapped in forgotten red or green foil. Maybe it gets enough water and light to last a few yuletides. More likely, along with the prayer plants that populate well-wishing dish gardens, it gives up the ghost within a few months.

Not Glen Blankenship’s Christmas cactus. He got his from his grandmother when he was 8 years old. Glen, deserving of an honorary green thumb, is now 79 years old. That makes the cactus roughly 71.

“If you think about it,” he says, “This was given to me before Pearl Harbor in World War II.”

Back in 1941, Grandma Blankenship didn’t think it strange to give her grandson a plant for Christmas, and he has done her memory proud in attending to it.

The cactus is large enough to be planted in a cart with wheels for moving from location to location.

“It’d be too big to get through this room,” Nellie, Glen’s wife of 60 years, surmises, had Glen not taken to regularly pruning it. “My mother helped me care for it up until Nellie and I got married,” he states.

All three of their children have gotten starts from the many-branched behemoth. Glen reckons at least 10 plants should be growing their own way toward a century now, having taken root from his generous clippings. Nellie would guess at more.

Having bloomed Thanksgiving through May of decades marked by wars and strife of all kinds, the closest the cactus came to dire circumstance was at the hands of his then 5-year-old daughter Michelle.

“She broke all the leaves off and piled them up around her. There were just stems sticking up out of the dirt.”

The coal miner of 37 years, 24 of which he spent as a mine foreman, put his work ethic and plant know-how into nursing it back to health.

Native to the coastal mountains of southeastern Brazil, the pincer-like branches of the Christmas cactus are more delicate versions of their meatier, pricklier desert cousins. Glen’s gets watered not too much, not too little, but just right and has its own sunny window to park beside. In summer, it enjoys a nice spot out on his deck. He would take it hard if his old friend one day stopped blooming.

“I’d feel sad if anything ever happened to it,” he states.

Glen fancies himself somewhat of a gardener, chronicled in pictures he keeps: images of him standing outside his Beckley home beside prehistoric-looking hostas. One tomato plant he grew expanded to two-stories vertically and fed several neighborhood families.

Still, he doesn’t claim to be an expert, a clandestine fertilizer or sandbagger of soil secrets. He says anyone able and willing to give a little tender love and care and attention can accomplish the same results.

“Just break a piece off and stick it in the dirt. Keep it watered and give it plenty of sun,” he says, and in time, the great thickener of things, “it will grow.”

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