The Gift of the Cacti

The Gift of the Cacti

Although now called the Holiday cactus, this flowering houseplant is better known as the Christmas cactus (Schlumbergera bridgesii) and its cousins, the Thanksgiving cactus (S. truncata) and the Easter cactus (S. gaertneri). Easy to care for, holiday cacti differ only in their blooming cycle. They are natives of Brazil and were given names of the holidays they bloomed near.

Through hybridizing, there are many flower colors available, including white, orange, pink, yellow, red and some bicolors. The flower of the Christmas and Thanksgiving cacti are tube-like and may be hooded, depending on the hybrid. The Easter cactus have star-like flowers, mainly red in color.

Care and Feeding

Holiday cacti are members of the cacti family, but do not share the same love of bright sunlight. They are best grown in bright, indirect sunlight. Once outside, nighttime temperatures reach 60 degrees, you can set them on a shaded porch or patio, or set the pot in the soil in a shady part of your garden. Remember to bring them inside before the first frost.

Holiday cacti also like more water than their desert relatives. From early April through the end of September, water when the soil begins to dry out. Apply a weak solution of a balanced houseplant fertilizer every two to four weeks. In the fall, allow the soil surface to dry between waterings. Once your cacti are finished flowering, stop fertilizing and let the top half inch of soil to dry out before watering. When new growth appears in the spring, resume regular watering and feeding.

Holiday cacti like to be slightly pot-bound and are usually repotted every 3 or 4 years. One of the best signs that your plant will need repotting is a decrease in blooms. The best type of soil for your Holiday cacti consists of two parts standard potting soil and one part peat moss and one part sharp builder's sand.

Setting Blooms

Holiday cacti form flower buds in response to cooler days and longer nights. While they will continue to need regular daylight, they must be kept completely dark during the night. Starting around the beginning of October, keep them covered between 12 and 14 hours each night, using a box or dark plastic bag. Also keep them cool, no more than 55 degrees if possible. Once flower buds form, you will no longer need to cover them.

If you have several plants, stagger the times you start covering them. In addition to extending the blooming period, you will be able to judge the best time to start covering your plants for the brightest holiday displays.

Propagation

Starting new plants from your Holiday cacti is quite easy and can be done regardless of your level of gardening experience. Sometimes your older, established plants will have roots already growing from the segment joints. The cuttings are usually taken in late spring.

To start a plant, just snap off a Y-shaped segment where it joins the segment below. The cutting should have no more than three segments. Set the base of the Y half way into potting soil and water as you would the parent plant, but without the fertilizer. When new growth begins to show, you can repot your new Holiday cactus and begin watering with a weak fertilizer solution.

Once again, while the care and feeding of Holiday cacti are the same, there is a difference in blooming times. The Easter cactus sets flower buds beginning the end of January through the beginning of February. The Thanksgiving cactus will bloom about a month earlier than the Christmas cactus, but it can be tricked into blooming at Christmas time. Other than than, everything is the same.

With a little care, your Holiday cacti can be kept for many years, shared with friends and family and can be enjoyed over and over, bringing back memories of holidays gone by. And isn't that truly the gift of the cacti?

John Pascarella is a freelance writer living in Eastern Iowa, along the Mississippi River. He enjoys gardening and working on his turn of the century home. He writes the column 'Homeworks' for Suite101.com.

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