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For the Gardener on Your Gift List: The 2012 MG Calendar
Glad Tidings from the Christmas Cactus

Winter Color Good Enough to Eat
Grow a Root - It's a Hoot
Save the Date!
Rodenticide Products are Changing

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Glad Tidings from the Christmas Cactus

By Aenne Carver

red christmas cactusThe exotic looking Christmas cactus (known both as Schlumbergera and by its old genus Zygocactus) blooms throughout the holidays and is easy care. While other indoor winter flowering plants can be divas with complicated needs, Christmas cactus almost seems to thrive on neglect.

Christmas cactus has leaf-like structures that appear strung together like a fleshy, green chain. These flattened, leaf-like shapes are actually modified stem segments called cladodes. In fact, many cactuses exhibit leaves that are really modified spines. A few cactuses, like the Christmas cactus, do not have true leaves or spines.

Christmas cactus blooms in winter because its flowers are triggered by photoperiodism. This complicated term simply means plants blossom in response to specific lengths of daylight and darkness. In winter, the days get shorter and the nights get longer, and this combination prompts Christmas cactus to flower.

The rest of the year, Christmas cactus is low care, but also a plain plant. However, the several weeks they are in bloom makes them worthwhile to cultivate. Suddenly, they are luminous, and look as if bright butterflies are on the tip of each stem. Blossoms come in brilliant shades of salmon, yellow, fuchsia, pink or white.

Growing Christmas cactus outside allows shortened daylight to trigger bloom and prevents bud drop off. Both can be problematic when they are grown indoors. To move an outside Christmas cactus inside without causing bud drop, don’t make the change until the buds are substantial, about 1/4 to 1/2 inch long. This insures buds won’t fall off from the sudden change of temperature and light.

If you purchase a cactus in full bloom, place it where it will get bright light. When it finishes blooming, move it to a sheltered spot outside, or place it in a bright window inside. Keep in mind that full sun scorches the leaves. If you wish to maintain your cactus as a houseplant, north or east windows provide bright light without magnified sun.

Growing these plants year-round is simple; just remember these cactus do need occasional watering or they wither. For robust health, use a liquid balanced fertilizer during the warm months. However, stop fertilizing in September and don’t start again until plant is finished blooming. This withholding of food also helps prompt flowering.

To propagate, twist off one or two nodes (where the stems are jointed) from the plant. If you cut the segments instead of twisting, the entire branch may die. Place several long segments of nodes in one pot to get a lush plant faster. These plants will bring cheer to the garden when not much else is blooming.

Aenne Carver is a Master Gardener, writer and lecturer. She also is associate editor of California Garden magazine. Visit her web site, www.thethriftygardener.com, for a schedule of her talks and classes.