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Get growing: Locally bred Christmas cactus a holiday treat

How exciting it must be to walk into a local supermarket and find a plant for sale that bears your name. Gail Glazier of Hadley had that experience earlier this month when she found ‘Gail Glazier’ Christmas cactus, bred by her late friend Thomas Boyle of the University of Massachusetts. The plant was patented last year by Boyle’s wife, Nancy Bandman Boyle of Hadley. Glazier is her best friend.

The plants are called Zygocactus for commercial purposes, although their usual botanical name is Schlumbergera truncata. Also for sale at Big Y is ‘Harmony’, an earlier Boyle creation, which is traditional red. ‘Gail Glazier’ is white or pale pink with a deeper fuchsia pink throat.

Christmas cactuses are those plants handed down from generation to generation because they are easy to propagate by cuttings. However, the older forms bloom for less than a week and take up a great deal of space in the home. Boyle’s hybrids bloom for about two weeks and are more erect in their growth habits. Tina Smith, horticulture extension agent at UMass, said the Boyle hybrids bloom profusely.

Nancy Boyle said her husband’s breeding program attempted to create plants with more erect stems that were rugged not only in the home but for shipping. Older forms of Schlumbergera have drooping stems that are hard to maintain in greenhouse production and take up a bit of space in the home. “His are more erect, more compact,” she said. He also developed a wider range of colors, not only in the flower but in the stem. Some of his introductions are salmon or white instead of the traditional red.

Thomas Boyle spent more than 20 years perfecting his strain of plants, and obtained his first patent for a Schlumbergera in 1998. After her husband’s death, Nancy Boyle continued to seek patents for his plants and applied for ‘Gail Glazier’ and ‘Rita Scott’, named for his aunt, in 2011. Another recent application was for ‘Elsie’, named for his mother.

Nancy Boyle said the plants are grown by Bay City Flower Company, also known as Hana Bay, based in Half Moon Bay, Calif. Bay City was the American company most interested in Boyle’s introductions and most eager to apply for patents.

There are currently nine Boyle hybrids with patents, Nancy Boyle said.

She said her husband tried to get his introductions into the European market and had cordial relations with a Dutch company. However, European growers have their own cultivars and weren’t interested in adding American hybrids. Boyle said that at a dinner in Europe several years ago she did get to sit next to the Danish woman for whom ‘Dark-Eyed Marie’ is named. If you bought a Christmas cactus years ago at UMass when students in the Horticulture Club held a holiday sale, you may have one of Boyle’s hybrids. Smith said the students propagated Boyle’s seedlings and had permission to sell them before they went to commercial production and official patents.

Caring for Christmas cacti is fairly easy. Remember that they are epiphytes growing in the tropics in trees, not desert cacti. They need a loose, sandy soil; let the top inch of soil dry out before watering. They also like bright light and some humidity. Prune them back about a month after flowering and take them outside in a sheltered place for the summer.

In the fall, let them stay outside till frost so they set flower buds.

THE LAYERED GARDEN: The hot new garden book of the year is “The Layered Garden: Design Lessons for Year-Round Beauty from Brandywine Cottage” by David Culp of Pennsylvania. Culp breeds hellebores, Lenten roses and teaches courses at Longwood Gardens. Over the past 20 years he has developed a stunning garden at his home. His philosophy is to design several levels of the garden from the ground to the tree canopy while planning for a succession of bloom. “Combining plants in a multitude of ways, based on their habits and moods, how they live and even how they die, gives my gardens successive layers of interest that extend into every month of the year,” Culp writes.

“I use the term ‘layers’ as shorthand for a design process by which I try to maximize the beauty and interest from each planted space, by combining complementary plants that either grow and bloom together or follow each other in succession…. More than just making sure one blooming plant follows another, layering is the art of creating a series of peak garden moments, the anticipation of which gets me out of bed in the morning.” He adds “… my goal is to create a sublime horticultural drama, full of surprises that keep the audience engaged.”

Culp’s gardens look absolutely fabulous in the photos by Rob Cardillo. But don’t fool yourself that this success is a low-maintenance effort. There are hundreds of plants in pots and troughs and in one small garden pots are changed six times a year. There are two acres of plants growing in very varied habitats from woodland to dry gravel to a ruin garden created within the foundation walls of an old stable.

If you ever see that Culp’s Brandywine Cottage Garden is open for a tour, jump at the chance to visit. Meanwhile, indulge in buying the book. There is practical advice here as well as wit and humor and wonderful design ideas.

WINTERBERRY: The deciduous holly, winterberry or Ilex verticillata, is usually a basic plant for holiday decorations. However, this year it is in short supply and therefore more expensive if you can find it. The owner of one garden center told me, “It didn’t grow this year.” Well, the plants did grow, but Dan Ziomek at Hadley Garden Center speculates that the warm weather in March followed by frosts in April killed the flowers so berries were never produced. They are extremely rare in the wild this year, so if you see some don’t hesitate to buy it immediately. It won’t be there tomorrow.

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