Marietta Dreesen will soon turn ninety two and so will her Christmas cactus When I visited her in her tidy home in mid-December she ushered me into the presence of that ancient succulent, and I was stunned. It was still mostly in full bloom, but Marietta assured me had I come a day or two earlier, I would have seen it in its full glory. But you could have fooled me. I thought it was magnificent.
“The cactus is probably older than I am,” she told me. “My mother, Marie, gave it to my grandmother, Alma, on the day that I was born. That’s why we call it Nana’s plant.”
That was in Brooklyn, New York in the year 1920. It has been in Marietta’s care for the past fifty years. I had to ask what she’d done to it in all that time to keep it so vigorous. Did she give it special plant food? How often does she transplant it?
“It’s only been in a few different pots that I know of,” she answers. “I don’t feed it and it gets plain tap water.”
I was stunned. The stems of the plant are so heavy they droop over the sides of the planter, and the blooms hang down like crystals on a great chandelier. To all appearances it has thrived on ninety plus years of benign neglect. That’s a recommendation you probably won’t find in a posh gardening book, but it seems to work just fine for this cactus.
Part way through our conversation Marietta held up a finger. “Wait,” she said. “I have something to show you.”
She disappeared into a back bedroom and returned with one of the “babies,” a hearty and smaller version of the mama behind me. It was nearly done blooming but was a very nice specimen in its own right. She placed it on a low table so I could see the comparison with the larger plant. The difference was quite pronounced and I began to see how the older plant had come to be revered.
The cactus was given to Marietta in 1963 when she and her husband moved from Westchester County, New York to her current home in upstate New York. Sons Nicky and Paul where charged with transporting Nana’s plant.
“They were very careful with it,” she said. “It’s really a family treasure.”
The cactus first resided in Marietta’s real estate office where it sat in the same room as her clients.
“It was near a huge window on the side of the building that overlooked the Catskills,” she remembers fondly.
Nana’s plant is moved outside in the summer months and drinks in the rainwater while sitting on a stone bench in Marietta’s yard.
“One year I had it out there and began to notice it didn’t look quite right.”
On closer inspection Marietta discovered that rabbits had been making a meal of the lower branches which almost reached the ground. The cactus is forty two inches across the top and the branches are thirty six inches hanging down. Easy pickings for hungry bunnies passing by. Once the nibblers were discovered a board was laid across the bench to keep the branches higher.
In all of the cooler months Nana’s plant occupies a special place in the mistress’s living room enjoying the sunshine streaming in from the picture window. Then it receives only tap water and admiring glances from the lady who has loved her Christmas cactus all her life and from those of us lucky enough to be invited into the presence of this majestic specimen.
Another surprise Marietta had for me was a beautiful calilily plant, apparently also in full bloom, sitting in a corner of her small dining room within view of the living room.
“This is just beautiful,” I said. There were even dew drops on the velvety white petals.
Marietta grinned. “Look at this,” she said and pulled the fake stem from the pot. The dew drops were plastic and the petals some kind of fabric! It looked so real because the plant itself is real and just as greeen and healthy as the many others in her care. We had a good laugh over that.
Marietta and I belong to the same church and if anyone wants to know where the huge white poinsettia in the narthax came from – well, that was on loan from Marietta. It graced the area in all its glory for the whole Christmas season. She truly believes in sharing God’s gift of plants with family and friends. Her kitchen window sill is lined with small vases and cups laden with slips from various plants around her home. She gives them away.
I stood up, reluctant to leave this pleasant oasis in the first days of winter. She ushered me slowly to the door and I took one more look at Nana’s plant.
“Come back anytime, dear,” Marietta said. “I’ll have blueberries again this summer.”
You know, I’m going to take her up on that!
Thank you for such a pleasant afternoon, Marietta. God Bless.