One jewel of the holiday flower world is the colorful Christmas cactus. Covered in tubular flowers, these long-lived tropical houseplants are easy to care for year-round.
There are three popular members of the clan: Christmas, Thanksgiving and Easter
cacti. Flower color ranges from white through red, yellow, orange and purples. The segmented, succulent-like foliage is rounded in the Christmas variety, while the Thanksgiving one has a sawtooth edge. Most sold in our area are actually the Thanksgiving variety.
Native to the Organ Mountains of Brazil, they are actually epiphytes, not cacti. Epiphytes are plants that grow harmlessly on other plants. Using the other plant as a physical support, epiphytes get moisture and nutrients from air, rain and debris which accumulate around them. Orchids are epiphytes, as are Spanish moss and bromeliads.
The native habitat of holiday cacti has a very rainy "wet" season from December to March, followed by a nine-month "dry" season. The mountains reach 7000 feet, so it is cool there.
Pot holiday cacti in a cactus mix for good drainage. Water when dry. A spring feeding of houseplant fertilizer is appreciated. During the summer they will be happy in a shady spot outdoors. Bring them indoors in September to begin preparing them to flower.
Holiday cacti are short-day plants. They flower when days are eight to 10 hours long and must be in total darkness for the 14-hour night. To simulate their mountain homeland, they need to be in a cool (50- to 55-degree) spot. Flowers will not form if the temperature is above 68 degrees.
Before central heating, it was easy to set holiday cacti in an unused bedroom for six weeks and call it good. An unheated garage might work, but if, like mine, it has windows in the cross-hairs of a street light, you will need to cover the plant during the night. Maybe your cactus can share a closet with the picky poinsettia. You'll save time rolling them in and out of total darkness into indirect light for the short days.
Flowering from March to May, the Easter cactus has rounded foliage with tiny
bristles. The flower bud set is induced by dry soil and cool (below 60 degrees) temperatures in early winter. It may remain outside until frost is in the forecast. Indoors, place it in indirect light and allow the soil to dry out between waterings.
Houseplants are a hobby. How wonderful that there are some to star in every season.
Native Californian Ann Bartlett never lets lack of experience with a plant stop her from trying it in the ornamental beds around her home.