Sunday, February 2, 2014

Plant Story — a Christmas Cactus Named Junior

Flower of Christmas cactus "Junior"
Flower of Christmas cactus "Junior"
I have grown the same Christmas cactus for over 50 years. Here's how it happened:

As we packed to move to Ohio from upstate New York in 1961, my mother had her Christmas cactus plant sitting on the windowsill, to be left behind. I protested. I couldn’t remember when we hadn’t had a Christmas cactus in the house. Mom shrugged and gave it to me. 

In 1965 I took a single rooted branch from that plant to college with me in a 2" pot.  The plant was small, and I, an inveterate namer of things, called it “Junior”. 

The only place in an old-time college dorm room for a house plant was on the window sill. Which was fine--until the wind blew the curtains! Junior was thrown onto the floor. The first time the pot broke I replaced it with another like it. But after the loss of several pots, my replacements got flimsier and flimsier. When I moved out of Markley Hall at the end of my Sophomore year, Junior was growing in a waxed paper cup from the dorm’s snack bar. When one cup started to come apart, I had another coke and replaced it.
Christmas cactus "Junior' in 1974
Christmas cactus "Junior' in 1974

Junior achieved very little net growth during those two years. After that its life was much better. My college apartments had good stable window sills as did my apartments in graduate school (below, 1974 portrait). And since then, life has been comfortable for a cactus in a pot. In fact, the name Junior no longer fits very well. (Photo below.)

Schlumbergera xbuckleyi "Rollissonii" "Junior"
"Junior" on February 1, 2014. One last open flower. 

Over that period, I learned a lot about  Christmas cacti. 

The proper plural of cactus is cacti, but I admit it sounds weird.

Christmas cacti really are cacti, in the cactus family, Cactaceae. The Cactaceae is a neat family of plants. The quintessential succulents, they often have impressive spines. Many never have leaves but rely on green stems instead. The flowers can be large and dramatic, attracting hummingbirds, moths or bats. Almost all cacti are native to the Americas. 
Wild Christmas cactus, Costa Rica
Wild Christmas cactus, Costa Rica

The Christmas cacti are a group of epiphytic cacti. Epiphytes are plants that grow on other plants but are not parasitic. Being epiphytes they live higher up in the forest where there is more light. Christmas cacti have few spines. There are no leaves but rather flattened green stems. They flower during the shortest days of the year, that is, around Christmas. Holiday cacti is actually a more inclusive name because some species flower in November (Thanksgiving in the U.S.), others in December. 

Junior is almost certainly a Schlumbergera, probably Schlumbergera xbuckleyi "Rollissonii".  Schlumbergera is named for a botanist named Schlumberger. The Schlumbergera species are native to Brazil. In England in the 1840s William Buckley crossed two species of  Schlumbergera cacti producing the plant with the magenta flowers. The x  in the name recognizes that the plant is a hybrid (cross) not a member of an independent, naturally-occurring species. 

If you did the math, you know Junior is known to be 53. However, Schlumbergera xbuckleyi "Rollissonii" has been propagated by cuttings since Buckley created it. Junior was last a seed about 170 years ago.

Flower of Schlumbergera xbuckleyi "Rollissonii" "Junior"
Flower of Schlumbergera xbuckleyi
"Rollissonii" "Junior"
Is it potentially immortal? Perhaps. Old age from the aging of tissues is one of the great mysteries of life. For some species getting old is not much of an issue. The really big marine clams are an animal example of living things that don't deteriorate with age. Plants like Junior grow new leaves and new roots so none of the actual plant is 170 years old. Perhaps that is part of the secret. 

Mutations that interfere with function can accumulate in clones, so aging is certainly possible. If that is occurring here, it is slow. 

In species that don't age from internal changes, individuals still eventually die--of accidents or disease, and, in the wild, predators. As we make more clones of Schlumbergera xbuckleyi "Rollissonii" we make death of the clone less likely because that will only happen when all the pieces perish.

This particular clone, with thousands of pieces growing independently in people's houses across the world, may well live another 170 years. Or more.

Pretty amazing.

Next post: What Junior has taught me about growing Christmas cacti. 

Comments and corrections welcome.

Kathy Keeler

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