By Patricia Dumas
It’s late fall, and the leaves are drying, the flowers are shriveling and there’s a bleakness in the air. All except indoors where my big, fat obscenely colored Christmas Cactus is blooming its giddy little heart out.
The Christmas Cactus, also known as Schlumbergera or Zygo-cactus, is not a true cactus as we know it. Instead of loving the dry, desert conditions of a typical cactus, they are at home as a tropical plant that preserves water in its leaves, yet likes humidity and heat. They are native to South and Central America where they get the hot, steamy weather they thrive on.
There are varieties that can bloom at Easter, Thanksgiving and Christmas. Zygo-cactus that are purchased blooming at Christmas time usually repeat their growth at the same time every year. With orchid-like blooms of red, fuchsia, orange, white and pink, there’s a variety for every décor. You just have to plan on making good friends with it, because it will be around for probably most of your life. And the lives of your children too!
I will say that my Christmas Cactus is a true antique. I’ve been growing it for over 20 years. I bought it when my children were young. They’re 30 and 28 now. It blooms heavily every year before Thanksgiving. Blasting hot pink shrimp-like blooms, my old friend gets bigger and more beautiful with just a little care and a few pinches here and there. If you don’t believe it, look at Mr. Sickles Sr.’s plant on display in the greenhouse at Christmastime. It’s almost a hundred years old, and blooms like a trooper every year. They are tremendously long-lived and are often passed down in the family for years. If that plant could talk, we’d surely know the secrets of the good old days.
Maybe you’ve seen one out of bloom, tucked away in your mom or grandmas house sitting in a corner doing nothing all year long. It looks dull green and somber for most of the year until its time arrives. Then it explodes like the promise of Christmas to come. It is big, blowsy, and full of color. Every stem reminds you of the year you bought it, and how long you’ve come since it was a little sprig.
There are a few things I’ve learned from my Xmas Cactus. It will take sun or part sun, and once the blooms come, it can be placed anywhere for a showy centerpiece. I can get it to bloom better by doing a few things. I leave my cactus outside all summer long during its growing season- letting the succulent leaves soak up the sun, humidity and rain. I leave it outside until it gets just a little bit too cold in November, and then I bring it inside. Within two weeks, it’s a blooming mass of flowers. After blooming, I let the plant rest. When Spring comes around, it goes outdoors again for its biggest growing push. I pluck off the the top leaf segments to encourage future blooms and bushy branching.
Water well during the growing season as the daylight outdoors gets longer, and fertilize monthly in summer. When the fall sets in, start the process all over again. Keep water scant before bloom, then water weekly again when the flowers appear. You’ll soon come to being “one” with your green family member. Every few years, you will need to re-pot your baby because it grows quick. More room makes more blooms. Eventually, like a child, you’ll know its habits, needs and quirks.
If you’re having a hard time with the bloom, set the plant in a cool, dark place indoors in November for 12 hours a day with just enough water to keep it alive. Once the buds set, the plant can be brought out into the household and it will bloom anywhere. If you really want your plant to bloom at Christmas instead of Thanksgiving, keep it in the dark longer until a couple of weeks before the big date.
Not much to look at during the rest of the year, you’ve got to let the Christmas Cactus grow, and make leaves until it’s ready to flower up in December. In the spring and summer, you can make babies too. Pluck a few stems and set them out to dry for a few days in a warm spot until the stems form a nice, hard callous at the bottom. Stick them upright in fresh potting soil, and water. In no time, you’ll have young plants from the mother lode; enough to start the whole family on a life-long journey of growth and remembrance.
To keep in mind in late Autumn:
- Don’t throw those tree leaves in garbage bags! They are good lawn and garden nourishment in the form of ground- up mulch. Try mowing over your leaves a couple of times. Works like a charm here. The grass is richer, and better every summer. Pile some up around bushes and in the vegetable garden too!
- Bulbs planted now, will bring you color and beauty in the spring. Plant some in in the garden, and save some for inside. Just chill some potted daffodil or , hyacinth bulbs in the fridge for a month, then bring out and force in a bright window. Voila! Instant Spring!
- Pick those dried, left over hydrangeas that are hanging on for dear life, and place them indoors in vases. If the color is too dull, get a can of burgundy or dark pink spray paint and spray the flowers for a great natural look.
- Plant, plant, plant! You can plant all your shrubs and perennials in the cold as long as you can work the earth. They are hibernating and take less water and nourishment, while establishing themselves well in the cool weather.