Common Christmas Cactus Myths

A friend stopped by to see me on Wednesday and as we were talking he happened to mention that his wife’s Christmas cactus was in bloom. He then commented something like “it must b be awfully confused.”

So I thought I would do this post because I know that there is a lot of confusion about these plants.

This plant is botanically a schlumbergera. There are 6 different varieties of Schlumberger, technically, and only one is the true Christmas cactus that blooms at Christmas. It is not the one generally sold, but if you have a “hand me down ” plant from a relative, you may have one. Its bracts are more rounded than any you see here.

These commercially sold varieties, also known as zygocactus, are really NOT cactus in any way. So don’t be fooled by the name. While they don’t need a lot of water, they need more water than a cactus. Think of them more like a succulent–but they will still want more water (depending on the temperature of your home) while in bloom.

Now about that bloom time: the blooming is initiated by temperature and daylight. As light falls in autumn and weather cools (at least here in the frozen north) the plants bud and bloom.

But each does it in its own sweet time. I have 17 plants. Generally they begin blooming about mid-October. They will continue through mid-February, with sporadic rebloom on a few plants.

This year the plants began bloom a little later, in early November. With luck, it means I will have blooms into March. I have never had quite so many in bloom at once though, so perhaps not.

But, isn’t that part of the fun of gardening? Every year is a new surprise!

Here in the Frozen North, Winter Doesn’t Mean the End of Gardening

A couple of things have come together to make me think about this topic.

First, I spoke to a wonderful group of gardeners in Essex, CT last week about house plants (you saw the house plants all packed up and ready to travel for last week’s Wordless Wednesday).

Then I got an email newsletter with the title “Winter is for Gardening too.” The newsletter featured winter interest plants, which is not what I am thinking about, but it just furthered my thought process.

Finally I am working on my holiday article for We-Ha magazine which is about–no surprise, I am sure, celebrating the holidays with house plants.

So. Do any gardeners really take winter off? Even if, as I do, you live in a cold climate, and you don’t choose to turn your home into a modified greenhouse, I have already received seed catalogs.

Plant catalogs won’t be far behind. It used to be that the plant and seed catalogs would arrive just after the new year. Then they backed up to around Thanksgiving. Now it’s even earlier.

And I suspect many of you, like I do, keep some form of records and you use this “quieter” time to evaluate what went wrong, what went well, and what you want change.

I am not sure how those who garden in year round climates keep up without a seasonal pause. They must be far better organized than I am. Or maybe it’s easier if you don’t have to worry about planting for “winter interest,” too!

The First of the “Holiday” Cacti

My so-called “Christmas” cactus are blooming late this year.

I am not sure that they are even called “Christmas” cactus anymore. As a general rule, I refer to them as zygo cactus or cacti, not because I want to avoid the whole Christmas/Holiday issue, but because their bloom time is so variable that even the word “holiday” doesn’t seem to capture it correctly.

Most years, I have these plants in bloom from mid-October until at least mid-February, with a second bloom (yes, you did read that right, a SECOND bloom) following.

The second bloom isn’t nearly as numerous as the first, but there is a distinct second bloom on many of the plants. Why do I even bother to mention it like that, in all caps?

Well, last year, it seemed as if there was a huge hullabaloo over on some of the trendier plant sites about this second bloom. People seemed to think it was so unusual. It really isn’t–just as it’s not unusual for these plants to begin blooming in October and to be blooming in February.

Keep in mind, it’s not all the same plant doing this. You can see that I have just a few of these lovely plants and they are on different bud and bloom schedules despite being in exactly the same place.

So what is it that makes them bloom? Well, roughly a few things but it’s not an exact science. In general, they are triggered to begin their bloom cycle by length of daylight and temperature. If I had to say it was one thing more than the other, I would suggest that it is temperature because this year seemed to be a bit warmer than last and they are blooming a bit later. After all, the daylight cycle stays the same from year to year.

Then again, I rarely put them in the same place in my home from year to year (with the exception of a few of the larger ones) so I don’t know that this is a scientific way to study it.

And the larger ones–that are always in the same place–are blooming earlier this year–so go figure! See what I mean about no real science to any of this?

In any event, you don’t need to believe the nonsense about putting these plants in the dark like poinsettias to make them bloom–I have certainly never had to do anything like that at all. The one that is currently in bloom is in one of the most well-lit rooms of the house, in fact.

One thing that you don’t want to do is to treat them like cactus, however. They are not cactus. They are more like a succulent,and should be watered sparingly. Because there are a few different types of zygocacti, their full range of care is beyond the range of this post.

Yardwork is Three Times More Expensive This Way

On Friday I talked about a misadventure involving my loppers. In order to cut the trunks of that big ficus in the living room, I needed to go out to the garage and get my loppers–ordinary pruning shears weren’t going to get that job done.

So I went out to the garage and brought them in and realized that I had a problem the moment that I opened the handles and the blades didn’t move–that’s never a good situation.

A closer look immediately showed me what had happened: the handles and the blades were no longer attached because someone–not me, obviously because I spent the summer being very careful not to do anything that would disrupt the surgery to my eye and this clearly involved a lot of force–had forced these loppers to cut something well beyond their capacity. Very sad.

I know just the culprit too.

The Spoiler hires a series of folks to assist with yardwork. He’s definitely no longer capable of yardwork in any way. I have spent my last two summers out of commission healing from one surgery or other, so for all intents and purposes, neither have I been, for the most part.

But because of this–and because my complete inability to supervise at all this summer because the surgery was on my eye and I had to be face down for longer than I cared to–crazy things got done and in crazy ways as well.

And my tools either got broken, or in some instances, have completely disappeared–which, of course, I don’t discover until I need them.

It’s frustrating and at times expensive as well.

But the alternative is to live in an overgrown jungle–which isn’t an good alternative either. At least the Spoiler tried to help.

But as we all know, with things like gardening, “outsourcing” is rarely as good as doing it yourself.

The Natural Lifespan of Houseplants

It always surprises people to find out that houseplants–and for that matter, perennials, trees and shrubs as well–have an expected lifespan.

It definitely surprises people to find out that some trees are shorter lived than others and by several decades in some cases. And it is not a matter of taking good care of the tree–as a general rule, a flowering dogwood is not expected to live as long as an oak.

When it comes to houseplants, many of which are actually tropical plants that are merely confined to a container, quite often we don’t think about lifespan. Something happens because of the nature of the fact that it is growing in such artificial conditions and the plant rarely reaches what might be its normal lifespan. Few of us own plants for decades.

Every so often, however, something happens and a plant does grow up and mature in one place for a long time.

The weeping fig, ficus benjaminii, that you see above, is 34 years old. It was given to my grandmother in 1988 for her 90th birthday. She had no real interest in it, so it came to me. I grew it in one place for 5 years, and then for the rest of its life here, where you see it.

Recently, I have noticed more leaves than usual on the floor. After several weeks of cleaning up after the plant, I finally looked up, only to discover that 2 of the trunks were dead (thank goodness that I figured this out–I would have been cleaning up leaves forever if not!!)

You can see where I removed most of the dead trunks here. There’s a story about our loppers but I will save that for another time.

Then I decided to research the lifespan of potted ficus trees. Most places said 20-30 years for this variety so I am definitely on borrowed time as it is.

So we’ll see what happens as we go forward. So far the rest of the tree looks good. Fingers crossed.

Bird of Paradise Plant

If you have been with me for awhile, you may remember this image from last February. It was from a post that I called “It’s NOT Growing,” to gently poke fun at all those internet videos of every leaf unfurling.

I had said that I had no expectation of my plants growing in winter in very little sunlight in my cold home but that I was quite convinced that once the warm weather came and the sunlight returned, the plant would grow nicely and that the very tightly curled leaf–which had been in that suspended state of animation for 3 months–would unfurl.

So here’s the plant after its summer outside. Obviously more than one of those leaves unfurled. I needed to put it into a larger pot.

The Spoiler keeps remarking about how much he likes it–which alone is astonishing because he rarely comments on the house plants.

I have told him that by next summer I won’t be able to bring it back in–it will be a floor plant, probably touching the ceiling at that point.

And there’s where we may have a problem. Clearly there’s something delicious in my soil that the dog likes. I will need to find a solution for that. At least I know that it’s all organic–unless something has crawled in there that is tasty. Ick.