100-year-old Christmas cactus still blooming in Lisle
Christmas stories often have a tree at the center of the narrative.
Or maybe some poinsettias.
But this one is about a cactus. A really, really old cactus.
First, a little background:
Christmas cactuses outshine most houseplants at this time of year with their glorious floral display. The popular indoor plants have a series of long brackets for stems that grow up from the base and then cascade over the pot's rim, ending in a trumpet-like exotic flower.
The flowers come in shades of red, white, hot pink, purple, peach and variegated white with red-tone trim.
But the best part about a Christmas cactus is that it's long-lived and easy to propagate, making it ideal to pass down from one generation to the next.
Longtime Lisle residents Kim and Cheryl Schlytter know a little about that.
They have a Christmas cactus they estimate to be 100 years old.
No, that's not a typo: 100 years old!
They say they've owned the "mother plant" for 40 years, but its history goes back much further.
Back in 1977, with an interest in growing things and a new house, Kim Schlytter's mother, Evelyn, who would have been 100 this year, passed on to the couple her cactus when she retired and moved to Arizona. She told them she remembered the plant was carefully tended by her own mother, Regina, when Evelyn was a little girl.
Regina lived in Rosholt, Wisconsin.
"Rosholt happens to be the name on my father's side of the family," Kim said. "My grandmother would take her Christmas cactus to the county fair that was held there and won prizes for it."
Fast forward 50 years, and the same award-winning plant, now under Schlytters' care, has grown and propagated countless times.
"We have had lots of baby plants from that mother plant and given those away," Cheryl Schlytter said.
Together the couple counted stem cuttings going to Kim's sister, a niece, nephew, countless friends and numerous neighbors.
To root a new plant, Cheryl says she puts the cuttings in a jar of water, because she likes seeing the roots and knowing she has a viable plant before placing it in soil.
"Whenever we visit our nephew in New Jersey, they ask us to do something with their plant," Kim said. "We trim up anything that is hanging below the pot line, and prune back each bracketed segment to a size appropriate to its pot to get a bushier plant."
Every summer, the couple brings their Christmas cactus outside on a sheltered deck, where it thrives. Cheryl said she waters the plant every other day while it's outside and uses Miracle-Gro to fertilize.
"I switch to Miracle-Gro Bloom Booster fertilizer in August and September, using it two or three times," Cheryl said. "I never fertilize the plant when it's indoors and I only water when the soil feels dry."
The plant gets a haircut sometime after September. The couple also pinches away some of the bottom soil. They then add a little new soil to the bottom of the pot and a little more soil to top-dress the plant before it comes back inside for the winter.
"We probably cut it back a foot every year," Kim said, "I estimate it grows to three or four feet wide, and we have to tip it sideways to get it back into the house."
Christmas cactuses like to be pot-bound and the mother plant has been in the same container for at least 10 years. So taking away a bit of old soil and refreshing the plant gets it ready for another glorious holiday bloom.
The couple, who share a lifelong interest in gardening and plants of both indoor and outdoor varieties, do not fuss over any of them, even their star, the Christmas cactus.
One of the mother plant's more acclaimed offspring has a story all its own.
"About 10 years ago, when Trinity Lutheran Church in Lisle was one church in one location, our pastor came to us to ask if we had any house plants that we could cut off a branch and grow a new plant from," Cheryl said. "Kim and I were on a team called God's Groundskeepers, helping with the flowers outside on the grounds."
The pastor thought the church would like to open at a second site. He held a meeting where he introduced his expansion idea and the Schlytters' plant provided the visual of how one can cut off a piece of a plant to start a new one.
"We told our pastor that he could cut where he wanted on our plant," Cheryl said. "He did not realize that we then took those cuttings and rooted them and created a new plant we planned to give him."
A few years later, the second site became Trinity Green Trails on Maple Avenue in Lisle and that fall the new plant found a home near the reception desk.
"That first Christmas at the new site was the very first time the plant bloomed," Cheryl said. "It had not bloomed for several years, as we planned, raised the necessary money and prepared for a second site. We had it every summer on our deck and it grew, but no buds or flowers, until that first Christmas at the new site."
• Joan Broz writes about Lisle. Her column runs monthly in Neighbor.