Cactus

Being a military family, we moved around quite a bit. We were very fortunate to have moved back and forth to Germany three times.

Unfortunately, because of customs laws, plants cannot be transported. Usually families will pass along their plants to neighbors or other military families that will be there longer.

Very rarely do you rent a home that has plants left behind. On our second time stationed near Stuttgart, the family was moving from their home to Singapore for three years and was going to be returning at the end of that time.

The landlady asked me if I would mind caring for her houseplants while she was gone. There was one plant on a windowsill in the kitchen that was not only unique-looking but flowered from the end of a leaf in winter. This type of plant is called an epiphyte, a plant that grows on another plant. I came to find out this beauty was called a Christmas cactus because of the time of year it bloomed.

Although it is called a cactus, it isn’t one at all; it is actually a succulent. There are two varieties in the genus Schlumbergera that so closely resemble each other, both are usually identified as Christmas cactuses. The Christmas cactus’ botanical name is Schlumbergera bridgessii, and the pseudo-twin is the Thanksgiving cactus, Schlumbergera truncate. They are generally lumped together and just called a “holiday” cactus.

The easiest way to tell them apart is by the leaves. The leaves of the Christmas cactus have scalloped edges, whereas the leaves of the Thanksgiving cactus have jagged, pointy edges. The flowers of the Christmas cactus are usually red or white, while the flowers of the Thanksgiving cactus are red, white, pink or yellow.

The Christmas cactus grows in a cascading manner, whereas the Thanksgiving cactus generally grows in an upright position. The Christmas cactus is harder to find, and the Thanksgiving cactus is often mislabeled as a Christmas cactus. Either cactus is extremely simple to propagate.

Start with a healthy leaf or a set of three leaves with the bottom leaf that will be put into the soil being the largest. Firmly hold the leaf to be removed and twist or cut it to release it from the plant. Have a small pot of well-draining, moist potting soil and push the large leaf into the soil until it is about halfway in. In about a week or so, you will see new growth from the top of the leaf.

Place plants in bright but indirect light. Holiday cactuses need thorough watering during the growing season in spring and summer. However, when their bloom time gets closer, reduce watering and allow the plant to dry out slightly between waterings — but not completely dry.

Holiday cactuses like bright, indirect light. To force the plant to bloom, make sure it has 12 to 14 hours of darkness at night, even if you keep it in the bright light during the day. Keep it away from drafts and direct light, as both will have the leaves drooping and dropping.

Take care not to repot the plant too often; they perform best when pot-bound. Make sure there is ample humidity. This can be achieved by placing the pot on a bed of stones placed inside the saucer, with water added until it’s just below the top of the stones.

Thanksgiving and Christmas cactuses make wonderful hostess gifts and will add some interest and beauty during the winter months. Until next week, happy gardening.

— Irland, a member of the Limestone County Master Gardeners Association, can be reached at kippirland@hotmail.com. Visit http://mg.aces.edu/limestone for more information on the Limestone County Master Gardeners.

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