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Wednesday, Jan. 2, 2008 06:34 pm

Holiday cacti

Look for sturdy, healthy green foliage and new flower buds

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Though the poinsettia may be the most popular holiday plant, the holiday cactus is a tradition for many families. These easy-to-care-for cacti generally live a long life. In fact, I often hear about holiday cacti that have been passed down from generation to generation as family heirlooms. Holiday cacti include the Thanksgiving cactus, Christmas cactus, and Easter cactus. So how do you tell the difference between the three holiday cacti? These cacti don’t have true leaves — instead, they have flattened stem segments — and the various types are easily identified by their stem margins. The most widely grown species is the Thanksgiving cactus, Schlumbergera truncata. The stem margins have two to four sawtoothed projections. Flowers are produced between late November and December. Thanksgiving cacti are frequently forced into bloom and sold at Christmastime, often misidentified as Christmas cacti. The Christmas cactus, Schlumbergera bridgesii, has scalloped stem margins. The showy flowers generally appear between late December and March. The flowers are formed at the tips of the segments. The Easter cactus, Rhipsalidopsis gaertneri, has four to six rounded teeth along the stem edges and brownish hairs at the leaf tips. Pink or red flowers appear March through May. The Easter cactus may rebloom. Blooming in the holiday cacti is triggered by day length; they bloom when the nights are 12 to 15 hours long for five to six weeks. To initiate flower buds, place your Thanksgiving or Christmas cactus in a room that doesn’t receive artificial light at night, such as a spare bedroom or basement. Cacti may also be placed in an unheated porch until the temperature reaches 45 degrees. Plants should receive bright light during the day and 55- to 65-degree temperatures. Holiday cacti will also bloom if exposed to prolonged cool temperatures, between 50 and 55 degrees. When plants are in flower, keep them in a bright indirect light. Avoid too much light, overwatering, drafts, and heat, which will cause the flower buds to drop. While in flower, the plant prefers temperatures of 70 degrees during the day and 65 degrees at night evening. Don’t let the soil dry out during flowering. Failure to flower may be a result of interrupted nights or high temperatures. When the plant is not in flower, water it thoroughly but let it dry slightly between waterings. A major disease in holiday cacti is root rot caused by overwatering. Water your plant when the top inch of soil is dry to the touch. Fertilize monthly with a complete houseplant fertilizer when the plant is actively growing, between April and October. (Follow the label directions.) Holiday cacti require a sunny location indoors. When selecting a new plant, look for sturdy, healthy green foliage and new flower buds, and avoid disease- or insect-damaged plants. I can grow this plant, so I can testify that it is easy to grow and needs minimal care.
Jennifer Fishburn is a horticulture educator with the University of Illinois Extension Sangamon-Menard Unit. Contact her at fishburn@uiuc.edu.
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