Garden Diary - December 2015

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Christmas Cactus
Tuesday, 15 December 2015

If memory serves, the big box stores used to have racks of Christmas cactus for sale, starting about Thanksgiving. This year we're - as always - overloaded with poinsettias but the Christmas cactus are thin on the ground. Last year also, now that I think about it. I wonder why this is. We're talking about an easy to grow, unfussy house plant, one that is often passed down from the previous generation. Could it be that political correctness has trampled over the Christmas in its name? It would be difficult to create a new common name from Schlumbergera bridgesii, its Latin name. Holiday cactus is a no-go, because Schlumbergera truncata is commonly called Thanksgiving cactus since it flowers a month earlier. And there is an Easter cactus, Rhipsalidopsis gaertneri (also called Hatoria gaetneri) too.

"Cactus" is a misnomer. They don't want desert conditions. Native to Brazil, the Schlumbergera species are tree-dwelling epiphytes. Bright light, light shade, but not full sun. Autumn / winter growing conditions are as follows: avoid artificial light starting in mid-September, preferably 14 hours of continuous darkness at night for best bud set. Keep the soil evenly moist but not soggy. Cool temperatures, 60 to 68 degrees Fahrenheit, are preferable. And stop fertilizing early in September as the days are getting shorter.

There are several reasons why unopened flower buds fall off. There may be more buds than the plant can support. Temperatures suddenly became too hot or too cold. Someone turned the lights on, interrupting the long night / short day cycle. Or too much water which causes root rot. While not true cacti, these are plants that need a well-drained soil with good aeration, and do not let water to sit in the saucer under the flowerpot.

And then, in spring and summer give the plants a little vacation outdoors in a lightly shade place. Fertilize lightly every other week. Simple propagation from the flattened stem portions. You can have extra pots of these easy-care house plants to share with friends and family. Maybe that's why the big box stores gave up on selling them - they couldn't compete with the inherited plants.

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