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Sharing century-old Christmas magic

JOHN DEMONT @Ch_coalblackhrt John Demont is a columnist for The Chronicle Herald.

Besides four humans, a dog named Rubble and a kitten named Skye, there is a lot of life in the Macdonald home in Dartmouth’s Colby Village.

“I have a problem,” Jacquie Macdonald said without a trace of shame the other day. “But I love watching them all grow. It’s like a religion, very therapeutic.”

She speaks here about the house plants with exotic names like Burrow’s Tail, Goldfish, Monstera, and Mother-in-law’s tongue (also known as Snake Plant) grow there, as well as the vegetative varieties that hint of faraway places: palm, pineapple, and rubber plants.

The house, according to the head gardener and married mother of two, is home to “a massive lemon tree, a pretty big umbrella tree, and a big fig tree.”

Look around in there and you will also see subtle prayer plants and eye-catching coleus, along with several varieties of hanging string plants: watermelon, hearts, pearls, and dolphins.

Like any good mother, Macdonald loves them all. But in her upstairs sitting room, it is easy to tell that one plant holds a special place in her heart.

A Christmas cactus, socalled because it blooms this time of year, sits beneath the room’s only light.


It earns a special place of honour because of its size — after its most recent pruning, the plants is still an almost unheard-of 1.5 metres and 0.9 to 1.2 metres deep — and its age.

“Depends upon who in the family you ask,” Macdonald, who works as a sleep disorder clinician, said of the plant’s longevity.

What she means is that there are all kinds of theories floating around amongst her extended family about the cactus’s age.

The one that Macdonald puts the most credence in is that it somehow originated with her great, great, great grandmother, a woman named Susan Fleming, who was born in 1854 and died in 1932.

Sometime within those years, she passed a slip of the plant on to her wonderfully named daughter Leonara Estella Carroll, who had been living with friends and family in the Waverley-dartmouth area in the early 1900s.

We know this because when Leonara, in 1930, married a man named Hurley, her possessions included a Christmas Cactus, with its tree-like trunk and its blossoms that tend to be red, white, or sometimes yellow.

“That makes it almost certainly a century old,” said Macdonald.

From there, the plant’s path is a little clearer. Leonara gave it to her granddaughter Jennifer Farmer, who in time passed it on to her sister,

Gail Farmer, Macdonald’s mother.


“I wanted it for years, just like my twin sister (Susan Conway) who also has a green thumb,” she said.

In 2015, when the plant had outgrown the mother’s house, she offered it to Macdonald, who had more house space than her siblings.

“It’s an immense responsibility,” she told me. “Knowing that it has been part of our family for so long and has outlived all of these generations.”

The stress, then, is deep when she repots it, cutting back the roots and adding new soil as she did this fall. Since a Christmas cactus is different from the droughtresistant desert-dwelling variety, it needs a surprising amount of water. To ensure it blooms, Macdonald must keep it in complete darkness for months at a time so that the buds sprout.

But to her, it is so worth the effort to have cultivated a plant as large and striking as this one. The Christmas blooms, though, are just the icing on the cake.

“Honestly, my favorite thing about this plant,” she said, “is the resilience, age and family commitment and connection to keep safeguarding the cactus generationally.”

She wants to share the magic. No one visiting her house leaves without a plant slip, often from the prized cactus or the pair she has propagated from it.


The same often goes for patients at her Dartmouth clinic, for the past two years home to a cactus that also began as a slip from the century-old plant.

“It’s amazing,” she said of spreading the magic. “Not a whole lot feels better than that.”

Which explains why Macdonald started her Free plant swap & trade Facebook group where the stated goal is “to propagate your own diseasefree house plants or swap ones you’re ready to let go”— thereby ensuring that plants like her Christmas cactus live on, and on and on.

History and continuity, you see, matter to Macdonald. When she steps into her upstairs plant room, she smells the same woody smell that her mother described in the wood-paneled sunroom where, all those decades ago, Leonora kept the cactus.

She loves that olfactory reminder of how the plant connects the generations of her family. Just as she loves the fact that her extended family is full of people with green thumbs who will be vying to ensure its legacy continues when it is time for a new owner.

Macdonald thinks she already has the next custodian: her 17-year-old daughter Bria.

“Her room is full of plants, cactuses and succulents,” the mother said. “She loves them.”

She, after all, is a Macdonald and with that goes a certain responsibility.





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