By Richard Flowers, ACCNP-Green Thumb Nursery-Ventura
The weather is getting cooler and the holiday season is right around the corner. People are wanting to be cozy inside their homes and decorating their houses both inside and out. Everyone is getting into the mood for Thanksgiving and soon to be followed by Christmas. Normally these events are associated with cold temperatures, frost, snow or rain because winter is nearing and many of us are not thinking of something tropical, right, but wrong! Every year during this time an anomaly happens and it is something you can’t avoid, people have developed a tradition by adding these flamboyant and warm colored plants that add pizzazz and holiday cheer to those who need it.
The unique and one of a kind plants are native to the tropical jungle mountains of Coastal Brazil where they naturally grow on trees. These epiphytes live in pockets of leaf debris where there is a split in the branches, think of them like Orchids. The climate is refreshing, humid, and they never experience extreme heat nor do they experience frosts. The light is filtered, dappling through the canopy of the dense overgrowth. The water runs off rapidly and the plants are never waterlogged. Though they may be called a Cactus and unlike most Cactus that deserve little water, these exotic treasures prefer regular watering. These well known plants are what people call Holiday Cactus. Holiday Cactus can live between 25-60 years and can reach 3 feet across and produce 100s of glorious blooms. These long-lived plants can be passed down from generation to generation or shared with friends from a simple stem cutting rooted in a bit of damp potting soil. Go ahead share the love.
During the shortest days of the year, when you walk into your favorite Green Thumb Nursery you will see hundreds of these outstanding holiday Cactus that arrived from our growers in both bud and bloom. These exotic masterpieces are only available for a short while so now is the time to enjoy these colorful, festive, and tropical looking flowers that bloom right around the holidays. You will be delighted to see the array of colors ranging from red, pink or white flowers that bloom at the ends of branches. Each flower, which is typically about three inches long, lasts for several days, though the entire flowering period typically spans about two weeks and collectively they can bloom almost into January bringing holiday cheer and beauty.
Holiday Cactus can be grown inside in a brightly lit location or they can also be grown in filtered shade outdoors. Imagine having an exquisite hanging basket prominently showcased in a covered patio boasting reddish-orange elongated flowers that are 2 inches across and have 12 to 15 pointed petals. Holiday Cactus also makes festive and wonderful holiday center pieces and a thoughtful gift for plant lovers. Just having one or maybe more of these beautiful plants on a shelf will surely put a smile on your face, I know they do for me.
Holiday Cactus is really a generalized term for two similar but different plants that happen to bloom during the November- December and sometimes into January if you are lucky. Thanksgiving Cactus is sometimes called Crab Cactus, has pointed leaves, the flowers are arching or dropping in nature, and the pollen is yellow. Christmas Cactus on the other hand, have more of a rounded leaf, blooms later, the flowers are more upright, and the blossoms are more pink. They both have the same genus-Schlumbergera (Skulm-ber-ger- a), meaning they are closely related and there are many hybrids of each and some even hybridizes between each other. Sometimes they are called Zygo Cactus. In recent years, all sorts of new varieties have been produced with characteristics that blur the differences between the two species. These are what you’re more likely to find for sale nowadays, instead of the original species-type plants. Chances are it’s a major mishmash between Christmas and Thanksgiving Cactus, and maybe a few other related species. Basically, the Cactus that blooms earlier is Thanksgiving Cactus and the one that blooms later is Christmas Cactus.
Normally these plants do not show their glory by themselves at this time of year. Growers have forced them to do so. To be able to achieve flowering during the holiday season, I want to share some tips. To ensure good blossom set for November/December be sure the temperature is between 55- 60 degrees f. and 12 – 14 hours of darkness during September/October for the November blooms and October/November for the December blooms. To accomplish this try putting the plants in the garage, in a closet, or under the house. These locations or other similar areas are usually cooler and darker. Just remember to move your plants to a sunnier area during the day for 8- 10 hours then move them back. In other words they require short days and long nights and this cycle should be repeated for 6-8 weeks. When flowering is over, set the Cactus outdoors if you live in a frost-free climate. In cold climates, keep it indoors until weather warms in late spring. Repeat the cycle as described above to start initiating next years bloom.
Holiday Cactus require regular watering. It is best to let the soil become just dry in-between waterings, then water thoroughly each time. Don’t let the soil become too dry or else the flowers will start to drop, overwatering can cause bud drop also. Flower drop may also occur due to a lack of humidity or insufficient light. If this starts happening, water the plant less and add some fertilizer to the pot.
Move it to an area away from a hot radiator or vent and try a new spot where it can get a bit more sunlight. Water when the top layer of soil feels dry, or when its leaves start to wrinkle. If your home is particularly dry, place a shallow bowl of water nearby to help humidify the air, ideally 50-60% humidity is the ultimate goal.
They are happiest with filtered light outdoors or indoors with bright indirect light which is usually a north or east facing window. If your Holiday Cactus is in a south or west-facing window be sure to diffuse the light with curtains or blinds. Just make sure to avoid direct sunlight, drafts, heat vents, fireplaces or other sources of hot air which can burn the leaves. It is best to keep in a normal house temperature range, about 65 to 75°F, however cooler night temperatures can be used to initiate blooming (see above).
The soil needs to be porous, light weight, and well draining with leaf mold, I recommend using Orchid Mix. Make sure the pot that it is in has adequate drainage holes. A soil that is water logged or drains poorly will sadden the plant. When fertilizing, any all-purpose, balanced houseplant water soluble or liquid fertilizer can be used as a plant food for your Holiday Cactus. Growers recommend 10-10-10 or 20-20-20 formulations, diluted with twice as much water as recommended on the package to provide a half-strength solution. Holiday Cactus doesn’t need fertilizer while it is blooming. From April to October, fertilize every two to four weeks as new leaf growth begins. These plants oftentimes benefit with the addition of Magnesium. I suggest to mix 1 teaspoon Epsom Salts (Magnesium Sulfate) per gallon of water and apply it every other watering – not at the same time as fertilizing. Stop fertilizing in late September or early October to encourage flower bud production.
I encourage you to stop by your favorite Green Thumb Nursery to savor the the wide selection of Holiday Cactus. Happy Holidays!
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