Plant Gifts: Holiday Cacti

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Now that we’re in the midst of the holiday season, you may be tempted to begin shopping for traditional holiday plants to give as gifts or to brighten up your home.

Some will give and receive the most traditional plant, the poinsettia, and others will give small- to medium-sized potted Christmas trees. But for those who want to give a holiday plant that will outlive all others and be far and away the easiest to care for, look no further than a trio of cacti.

The popular holiday cactus is a true cactus even though its appearance is quite different from the cacti of the desert or the prickly pear cacti that is now rarely found in our East End fields and dunes. The holiday cacti are native to the Brazilian rain forest in the Organ Mountains north of Rio de Janeiro.

These plants have wide, flattened green stems—called segments—that look like leaves and produce colorful flowers. The plants grow at about 3,000 to 5,000 feet above sea level and it roots in plant debris trapped among tree branches and crotches or on decaying humus in stony, shady places. They are in fact epiphytes, like many of the orchids.

Hybridization and the selection of particular species has extended the blooming period of these plants. Now you can now find not only the Christmas cacti (Schlumbergera bridgesii) but Thanksgiving cactus (Zygocactus truncatus), also known as “the lobster claw cactus,” and the Easter cactus (Rhipsalidopsis gaertneri). Some enterprising growers and gardeners even put pieces of each species in the same pot, resulting in a plant that appears to flower from mid-November through late-March.

Also due to hybridization, red is no longer the only color found on these holiday cacti. The range extends from pure white to various shades of pink and red. You can even find some novelty varieties with peach, salmon, purple and orange flowers. The most recent introduction being a gold flowering variety.

Most people purchase these plants when they are fully budded or in bloom. When bringing them home or giving them as gifts, be careful not to expose them to sudden chills as this is the most common reason why they suddenly and seemingly mysteriously drop their buds and flowers.

As far as care, they require only light watering and prefer growing in a cool spot with bright light, but not full sun. Yellowing leaves at this time of the year is generally an indication that they are getting too much sunlight.

For the best blooming, holiday cacti prefer night temperatures of 55- to 60 degrees. Higher nighttime temperatures can also result in bud drop, as can low humidity.

It’s also important to remember that these plants are epiphytic, meaning that they draw a portion of their moisture from the air and not from the root system. Overwatering will result in mush.

Begin to fertilize the plants only when the blooming has stopped. Use a dilute fertilizer that is not too high in nitrogen (fish emulsion is great if you can stand it) or look for 5-10-10 or 10-10-10 and cut the label rate by two-thirds.

When warm weather returns, you can set the plants outdoors in a shady spot but make sure that the sun does not hit the foliage. In spite of the fact that these are cacti, they come from the jungle and thrive in habitats similar to ferns and orchids.

If you want to do these plants perfectly you should grow them with three distinct growth periods. These are designated as vegetative, rest and flowering.

The vegetative period begins in January and then again in the summer. During this period, the plants need the most water.

The rest period is in the fall through early December. In this period, the plant will tolerate less light.

During the flowering period the plant needs bright light, not sunlight. But again, this is also a plant that seems to appreciate some neglect.

These plants tolerate and even thrive when being pot-bound, but for the health of the plants they should be repotted every three to four years. Repotting is best done in the spring by adding new soil and pruning any roots that are brown and lifeless. The plant can be returned to the same size pot and remember that overpotting in too rich a soil will result in a nice lush green plant but few, if any, buds.

Flower buds will begin to set in September or early October. At this time, stop feeding the plant and reduce watering. If the plants have been outdoors for the summer, be careful to keep them in a cool location when you bring them in to avoid bud drop.

The cacti need long nights to set buds. A brief exposure to light will not stop the budding process but if there is a porch or bright streetlight outside the window and it shines long into the night, this may inhibit budding. It’s best if the plants get 12 to 14 hours of uninterrupted darkness. If the plant is grown in the same spot in the house it will flower virtually on the same day and for the same length of time year after year after year.

Insects and diseases are rarely, if ever, a problem. The most common problems seem to be from overwatering, which results in root- and stem rot. You can avoid this by letting the soil get dusty dry before watering again. This seems to be especially important with the Easter variety, which is most sensitive to overwatering.

Mealybugs and scale can be a problem but only if they come in with the plant when you buy it or if another infected plant comes into physical contact with the cacti and the bugs stroll over.

Another great thing about these plants is that they are very easy to propagate. In spring or summer, just cut off a piece of the plant that has at least two segments. The more segments on the cutting, the larger the plant you will produce. Limit the piece to four or five segments at most, though, as the small root system will not be able to provide adequate support or nutrients for larger pieces.

Let the segments dry for a few days so that a callus forms. Then strike the pieces, placing the callused end into the soil, into damp sand or vermiculite.

In just under a month’s time, roots will form and you can pot up the rooting sections with a light potting soil. The potting soil should be composed of about 1/3 sand added to your potting soil to avoid overwatering. You can make your own potting mix for these plants by mixing one part sand with one part potting soil or topsoil and two parts peat moss.

Holiday cacti are great plants to have around because they provide color at times of the year when most flowering plants are not blooming. They do well in standard pots and hanging baskets also. Add the fact that they are so easy to care for, easy to propagate, and if left alone will flower and grow for years, how can you possibly go wrong?

Keep growing.

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