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Old growth: Some houseplants are long-lived family members

Renee Lang of Superior stands beside the Christmas cactus she has cared for for more than 45 years. Before that, her aunt had the plant for 50 years. Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com1 / 3
Renee Lang’s Christmas cactus normally occupies a corner of the dining room near a west-facing window. Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com2 / 3
Renee Lang’s Christmas cactus still blooms. Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com3 / 3

For her son's high-school graduation, Renee Lang served pineapple. Instead of tossing the remains, she kept the top, rooted it in water and planted it.

Twenty-six years later, two pineapple stalks stand tall with leaves spiraling outward, and a long tendril stretches up in the living room of her Superior home.

"I can't get it pollinated because there are no pineapple pollinators around here," she said.

Also in Lang's collection is an almost 100-year-old Christmas cactus, passed down from an aunt. It's still blooming in colors of deep purple and light pink. Lang's divided it many times, its descendants sprout on the dining room floor and hang in her well-lit kitchen.

The Christmas cactus is one of the longer-living breeds of plants, said Bob Olen, St. Louis County horticulturist. Others are the wax plant (hoya), snake plant (Sansevieria), devil's ivy (potho), Jade plants, peperomia, aloe vera. A tell-tale sign is they're typically slow-growers with thicker, waxier leaves.

While their it's not a guarantee these breeds will live on, with reasonable care, they can last for decades, and there are hundreds of longer-living breeds, added Rod Saline, owner of Engwall Florist Greenhouse Garden. Even more are peace lilies, Chinese evergreens, Boston ferns, ficus and some ivies.

Helen Abramson's ivy came from her wedding bouquet 61½ years ago. It grew along the windows in her mother's kitchen. Today, a cutting from that winds its way along a metal hoop in her Meadowlands home. Abramson has given many cuttings to family and former colleagues.

Plants are a joy that bring beauty and memories, she said.

Houseplant growing conditions should be bright but not hot, Olen said. You want slow and cool growth, and adequate nutrition. Other tips are transplant only when necessary, and that may be after 10-15 years when there's an indication of excessive root growth.

With good care and conditions, longer-living breeds can thrive for 50-60 years, but they do have a life expectancy. "Nothing grows forever, and nothing lives forever," Olen said.

If you sense a plant is nearing the end and you want to maintain the family history there, replant with some cuttings, he recommended.

Avoid overwatering, as that damages the root system, Saline said.

He suggested considering your plant's needs and how they were met in its natural environment, the desert or tropical rainforest, for watering and light requirements. Also, plants need air to breathe like us, he said.

Jenna Davis of Duluth sits with her grandmother Bernie Wayner’s asparagus fern. (Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com)

Bernie Wayner's asparagus fern breathes in the sunny, front room of her Park Point house. It's 30-plus years old, and Wayner has had it since her father died in 1986.

She was named Bernice after her father, Bernard. "When I was in school, they started calling me 'Bernie,' which was his nickname." And while she hasn't named her fern, "I just talk to my father when I water it," she said.

Next to her fern are a peace lily, which used to belong to her son, and a lemon tree, a reminder of her sister who gifted the seeds. Also sitting in the living room were Wayner's granddaughters.

Bernie Wayner’s father Bernard Wayner picks apples in this family photo.

I know how much plants mean to her, said Jenna Davis, adding, "She always says, 'Talk to your plants.'"

Wayner has passed on her love of botanicals to Davis, who now has two cacti.

While, Wayner has never divided her asparagus fern, a couple times a year, it blooms teeny, tiny white flowers that are "just darling."

Wayner has many houseplants throughout the house, and her gardening go-to is "The Findhorn Garden: Pioneering a New Vision of Man and Nature in Cooperation."

Lang attributes her plant success to not overwatering. "They can be thirsty, but they can't get better from drowning," she said.

And Lang moves all of her botanical buddies into her sunny front porch during summer.

"It follows the light," she said, pointing to her pineapple tree. "See how it's starting to move this way? It's aiming for that window."

While Lange doesn't name her plants, she talks to them every day. What she says ranges from "you can bloom now" to "do you need more water, more sun?"

In the corner near her cacti and pineapple tree, Lang pointed to a potted plant. "I have a friend that died last year around this time, and she gave me that begonia. She said 'I know you'll be able to keep it,'" Lang recalled.

Plants are a reminder of life, she said. "We're retired, so we get up in the morning and they're green, and they're not dying, and we're good."

CLICK HERE TO READ MORE: Readers share their stories of long-lived plants.

Melinda Lavine

Lavine is a features and health reporter for the Duluth News Tribune. 

(218) 723-5346
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