In the Garden:
Western Mountains and High Plains
November, 2005
Regional Report

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This holiday cactus has already begun to bloom for the Thanksgiving season and beyond.

Enticing Holiday Cacti

You see them blooming at local garden centers and supermarkets at this time of year -- trumpets of red, white, pink, magenta, yellow, and orange. They are Thanksgiving and Christmas cacti, and their individual flowers can last for a week or more; one plant's blooming frenzy can continue for a month.

Plant hybridizers have taken the traditional Schlumbergera, formerly known as Zygocactus, and introduced a variety of colors and forms. How can you tell the Thanksgiving and Christmas cacti apart? Here's a general rule of thumb: Schlumbergera truncata has succulent leaves with tiny spikes on the sides. It's commonly known as the "crab-cactus," and it generally will start blooming around Thanksgiving. The Christmas cactus, Schlumbergera russelliana, has more gently lobed leaves without the prominent spikes. It blooms around Christmas.

To grow these plants with a success, think "jungle" not "desert." They are not true cacti. They are native to Brazil where they grow high in the trees, lodged in pockets of leaf mold and other organic matter that settles in the cavities along the branches. So they don't like direct, hot sun or dry conditions. Given the right conditions, a plant can thrive for decades, like the one my grandmother started in the 1950s. I still take cuttings from this plant and continue to grow it as a tribute to my grandmother's green thumb.

Older varieties of holiday cactus tend to have drooping branches, which makes them nice subjects for hanging baskets. The downward-facing flowers come in colors of pink, red, and white. The flower petals look like two tubes, one inside the other, curving backwards. Newer varieties have more erect branch leaf segments and flowers that are somewhat more compact. Flower colors range from traditional red and pink, to orange, yellow, and even lavender-purple tones.

Growing Tips
One feature of these tropical cacti is their ability to withstand cool temperatures and short dry spells, making them some of the easiest flowering plants to grow in a traditional home environment. But keep in mind that surviving isn't thriving, and getting them to produce those colorful trumpet flowers that tempted you to buy them in the first place takes a little extra attention.

If you summer your holiday cactus outdoors in the summer, bring it indoors before the first hard frost. Allow the soil to dry out slightly between waterings. To induce flowering, it is important to expose the plant to about six weeks of short days (less than 12 hours of daylight or artificial light) and cool temperatures. Once the flower buds are set, continue a regular watering schedule and normal room temperatures.

During the winter months, keep the plant where it receives indirect sunlight or light filtered from the curtains. Keep the soil evenly moist and give it extra humidity by placing the pot on a pebble tray. It will grow best at temperatures of 65 degrees during the day and 55 degrees at night. This will encourage more flower buds.

In spring when the plant has finished flowering, begin a regular fertilizing regiment with an all-purpose plant food. Continue to keep the soil evenly moist. When the danger of frost has passed, you can grow your plant outdoors in a shady location.


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