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Christmas in April? April 1, 2011

Posted by ourfriendben in gardening.
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Silence Dogood here, and no, this is not an April Fool’s joke. (Though Mother Nature is certainly playing one on us; it’s snowing here this morning at Hawk’s Haven, the cottage home our friend Ben and I share in the precise middle of nowhere, PA. Hurry, spring!) Instead, it’s about our Christmas cacti—or at least the two on our kitchen table—which are coming into bloom, or more accurately, covered with buds, as I write.

It’s almost Easter. You must mean Easter cacti, you’re just mixing up your holidays, you may be thinking. But no. Though we also have, and love, Easter cacti (and Thanksgiving cacti, for that matter), these are definitely Christmas cacti. How can we tell? By the “leaves” (actually flattened, modified stems) and the shape of the blooms.

Thanksgiving cacti (Schlumbergera truncata) can best be distinguished from their cousins the Christmas cacti (S. x buckleyi, sometimes called S. bridgesii) by the shape of their “leaves.” Thanksgiving cacti have sharp, pointed “teeth” along the sides and/or at the end of each “leaf” segment, while Christmas cacti have what I’d call crimped or ruffled edges. As noted by their names, Thanksgiving cacti bloom earlier than Christmas cacti, though it’s been our experience that once they’ve spent a year in our home, the Thanksgiving cacti tend to bloom around Christmas and the Christmas cacti in early spring. Daylength is the trigger for bloom in both cases, and in the case of Easter cacti.

Easter cacti (Rhipsalidopsis gaertneri) are easier to distinguish from Thanksgiving and Christmas cacti. All three are epiphytes from the Brazilian forests, living in the crotches of tree branches where humus tends to accumulate to support their roots. But while Thanksgiving and Christmas cacti are rainforest species, Easter cacti live in what are called “true forests” such as the ones we have here in the U.S., which lack the tropical conditions and daily downpours that characterize rainforests. Their “leaves” (also flattened stems) are smaller and smoother, with hairy bristles at the ends, and the flowers open like stars, not tubes-within-tubes like the Thanksgiving and Christmas cactus blooms. And yes, their blooms are also triggered by daylength, and tend to occur later here with us than their name suggests.

We love all these cacti for their cheerful, colorful, long-lasting blooms, interesting “foliage,” and easy care. But our long experience with them does provide a few care and selection tips you might want to consider:

* Don’t buy white. The white blooms on these cacti are so beautiful it’s hard to resist them. But again, these plants hold their blooms for quite a while. While other colors remain true, we’ve found that white blooms quickly turn a sickly boiled-shrimp-pink, then brown, spoiling the effect. (Yellow blooms on these plants also pinken in our experence, but at least they don’t brown.) Admire the white flowers at the greenhouse or grocery, but bring home the red, coral, or pink-flowered plants.

* Don’t make changes once you see buds. Normally, these cacti are reliable bloomers, but they’re notriously finicky if you change their light or temperature conditions once they set buds. If you’ve ever bought a Christmas, Thanksgiving, or Easter cactus loaded with buds and blooms, then watched with horror as they fell off in your house, it’s because your comparatively dry, dark, and possibly cold house shocked the plants out of bloom. But don’t worry, take care of them and they’ll bloom next year and every year thereafter. These are not, however, plants you’ll want to move around as they’re coming into bloom. That’s why we leave them where they live year-round rather than moving them to more prominent positions once they bloom, as many people do with other plants.

* Let them breathe. In our experience, the flat “leaves” of these cacti are dust magnets. To keep them healthy, they need to breathe. In warm weather, we’ll set them out when it’s raining to wash them off. When it’s cold outside, we’ll give them a lukewarm “shower” in the sink (making sure we hold the plants sideways and keep their potting soil out of the water). I’ve also resorted to a light rag-dusting on occasion, but that’s just a temporary measure between washings. Needless to say, please don’t spray your plants with any polishing or dusting products!

* Give them basic care. We find that minimal commonsense care is best for our Thanksgiving, Christmas and Easter cacti. Water them when the soil in their pots is dry to the touch, but don’t let them stand in water. Add liquid seaweed (kelp) and a balanced organic fertilizer when the plants are actively growing; otherwise, just give them plain water. Pot them up when, and only when, they’re bursting from their pots, in a mix of organic potting soil and compost. That’s really all they need. They’ll reward you with a long life and reliable bloom display every year.

Christmas in April? We say, bring it on!!!

            ‘Til next time,

                         Silence

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