More About Holiday Cactus

Schlumbergera Coral Red

On Friday I talked about what I thought made Schlumbergera–or holiday cactus bloom.

Today I am going to talk about why it’s really not such a great idea to refer to them as cactus.

What’s the first thing that comes to mind when you hear the word “cactus?” Sunny? Hot? Dry? All of those apply. In fact, most people either kill cactus by over-watering, or by never watering. Cactus can be a little tricky.

But these “Holiday” cactus actually aren’t in any way related to desert cactus or even to succulents, despite their somewhat fleshy leaves.

They are most closely related to orchids. Yes, they are epiphytes, which means if you were to find them in their native South America, (the Brazilian south eastern forests, to be exact) you would see them growing in trees or on rocks–and most definitely in the shade.

So that’s what makes their care a little trickier than just an ordinary house plant. They don’t want hot sun, like their “cactus” name implies. They like that “bright indirect light–filtered sunshine (think through a curtain, perhaps).

I keep mine in east and west windows and they seem to do just fine but I am at a fairly northerly latitude. If I were in Florida–or at the top of a mountain–I doubt that would work. I am in one of those places where we can’t make our own Vitamin D by going outside this time of year even without sunscreen!

And while we all know someone whose grandmother/mother/aunt had one of these for 70 years, the plants they are selling now are not those plants. Most are hybrids designed to bloom earlier and with far more blooms. I suspect we will be lucky if our plants last 70 years. I just lost my oldest at about 24 years.

How can we help get a long life from our plants? I grow mine dry and cool and I pot them in clay pots with cactus mix. So far that’s working out well for me.

Finicky Ficuses

Finicky ficuses

One thing that I realized as I was bringing in the house plants and trying to get them placed around in various windows, was that I tend to collect groups of plants.

I suspect most of us with room for a good number of plants will do this. We start out with just lots of house plants and over time decide to add more of certain kinds that we like deliberately.

My two biggest collections have to be either snake plants or “holiday” cacti in the schlumbergera genus. I have about a dozen of each–nothing crazy.

I do have about 6 or 7 different types of ficus though as well. Some, like ficus elastica–the well known rubber plant–are very easy. Even my old ficus benjaminii–the weeping fig–doesn’t give me issues.

But the 3 pictured above–you see ficus lyrata, the fiddle leaf fig, most prominent–are very finicky. I find it to be finicky about everything! It’s fussy about temperature, which you can’t be as a plant in my house. It can’t be overwatered or it rots (not usually a problem for me). And spider mites are a perpetual problem. I need to keep it showered–which doesn’t help with the “don’t over water” issue in my cold house.

Ficus Audrey

But the fiddle leaf fig looks good compared to ficus Audrey. This is one of my “OMG, this plant was over $30 so it can’t die!” plants. But from the moment I got it a year ago, it’s been nothing but trouble! In addition to all the issues that the fiddle leaf fig has, (you can actually see the spider mite damage on the lower leaves–yuck!) It also gets mealy bugs. Great. If I weren’t so “invested ” it would be compost.

Variegated saber leaf fig

This plant is actually fairly trouble free–it just doesn’t grow much. I know variegated plants are slow but this is an 18 month old plant for me. It actually doubled in size over the summer, which is good or it would have become compost. I was getting very discouraged. Obviously nothing will happen now until next summer–and I have moved it away from its 2 pest prone friends to try to safeguard it. The last thing I need is another finicky ficus!

“Come See Our Amazing Blooming Snake Plants!”

Earlier this summer, one of our local garden centers had this headline in an Instagram post. And I just smiled.

The posted photo looked great with a whole cluster of blooming snake plants (I hesitate to call them by a botanic name at the moment because what we have known as sansevieria for years has been subsumed into the dracena genus. And when plants get muddled up botanically–or cleared up, but it seems muddy at first–the good old fashioned “common” name seems pretty good all of a sudden!!)

Snake plant flowers

But as anyone who has been around a blooming snake plant knows, those small flowers pack a powerful fragrance! They are especially fragrant in the evening. That’s generally how I know one of mine is blooming–I will smell it first when I walk into the room–then I look over to the windowsill and see it. You’ll notice my photo was taken at night, when it was the most fragrant, of course.

What I am trying to say is while the garden center had a great marketing headline, anyone with enough light can make a snake plant bloom. Just about all of mine in this west window have.

The conditions they need are higher light (many people grow then in dark northern exposures because they tolerate it–but this is a western exposure and I have grown then in an eastern exposure too.) They also like to be tightly potted so don’t keep increasing the pot size.

If you notice the right side of this cheap plastic nursery pot, this plant has actually broken through it twice! Heaven help me when I go to re-pot it! At this point, it’s almost all plant and roots–I will need to cut the pot off to re-pot it. And it’s a little overdue. But I can’t go much larger or I literally won’t be able to lift it. This is one heavy plant. That’s why I chose the cheap plastic to start with–I had to get it upstairs and into the window somehow.

So I will enjoy the blooming–and try to ignore the re-potting issue.

But if you would like to get your snake plant to bloom, try giving it a bit more light. You might be pleasantly surprised.

Blooming Snake plant

Summer Vacation for the House Plants is Over

Aglaeonema grouping

I am always stunned when I bring my house plants back in after their very brief time outdoors. In my climate, they really are house plants–they are inside from early September through the middle of May each year.

So it wouldn’t seem that a brief few months outside would make so much difference. And yet it does.

In certain plants, like my giant medinilla, it promotes flowering, almost immediately. In others, like the aglaeonema, above, it enhances the colors, even though they summered in the deep shade of a dogwood tree.

Tropical pitcher plant

Then there is this, my nepenthes. It went outside as a single strand of pathetic looking ropey leaves, and no pitchers. This is how it came back in. By next May, we’ll be back to a single strand of ropey leaves, I suspect.

I would say that it was the natural rainwater that helped it, but we had too little this summer for that to be a factor. Maybe it liked all the heat.

In any event, not everything did well. My citrus went outside with lots of lemons and came back with one. The drought and tropical storm winds were not kind to them. Critters thought that lemons might be a good moisture source.

Still, on the whole, my plants almost always come in far better than they went out. This year, the house plants had a better vacation than a lot of people, sadly.

House Plants–To Compost or Not?

I mentioned on Monday that this is about the time when I cast a critical eye on the house plant collection and decide what’s coming back inside and what’s becoming compost.

Windowsill space is always an issue and there’s no reason to look at plants that I don’t love. Several of the windows are already nicely filled and no plants have come inside yet.

Many of you may wonder why I take the plants in so early. As a general rule, I try to begin transitioning them in on Labor Day weekend. It doesn’t have so much to do with temperature as it does with light.

If I leave them out a few weeks later–as I have on occasion– when I bring them in, they drop a lot more leaves. So I try to avoid that.

Ruella

This ruellia may not make the cut. There’s nothing really wrong with the plant, but it does nothing for me and the drooping habit is depressing. Who needs depressing plants right now?

Dracena

It’s a good bet this one is gone. Again, the problems speak for themselves (I think). I could try to salvage and root the top, I suppose but why? It’s such a common plant.

Aglaeonema

This is the one I am not sure about. Something–chipmunks? Squirrels? Keeps making a mess and using the pot to cache their nuts. In the process, pieces of the plant are broken and uprooted. I may try to salvage it just before I bring it in. We’ll see.

And there may be others. Because after all, I will need room to aquire a few new plants too.

Unwelcome Pest

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I acquired two little tropical hibiscus plants early this season–on the same trip that I bought the “invisible” impatiens that I talked about on Monday. One is sort of a red-orange color and the other a orange-yellow color–you know, the tropical bright colors that hibiscus come in!

They haven’t bloomed as much as I would like despite the heat and humidity that we have been having but when they do bloom they make me unreasonably happy. I think it’s just that I can count on one hand the number of trips I have made to the garden center this year so anything blooming in my yard is really making me happy.

I also situated them right next to my door–in among my herbs–so I see them several times a day when I come in and out of the house with the dog. So there’s a splash of color with the herbs when they bloom.

I especially like the yellow one. Yellow is one of my favorite colors in the garden. So I watch the buds as the unfurl.

But last Saturday I noticed something amiss with the buds. They would get to a particular stage–almost open–and then stop. I leaned in closer and reached for one and it came off in my hand.

That’s just not typical–hibiscus aren’t THAT fragile–so I sat right down, picked up the pot and took a closer look. I saw two things that troubled me.

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This was the first. If it weren’t for the presence of the ant on the bud, I might have thought it was mealy bugs. But I didn’t see any full grown mealies–just this sort of white cottony stuff.

So I looked a little more and sure enough, there was a little green wedge shaped bug–a green plant hopper. So the white mess is the wax hiding its nymphs.

My first choice–always–when dealing with any pest–is a sharp blast from the hose, which seems to have worked well and gotten rid of the nymphs. We are in moderate drought so I am trying to be judicious about water use, but at the same time, hibiscus are very sensitive to any sort of insecticide, even organics, so the hose seemed the best choice here.

And so far, so good. No more plant hoppers or nymphs. We shall see if the remaining buds open properly. Fingers crossed.

Unexpected II

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I caught sight of this across the room last weekend. It startled me because this plant hasn’t grown in several years.

I haven’t changed anything–pot or soil–and I don’t fertilize so that’s not it.

Certain plants sense things like when they are going to die and they put out seed. Other plants, like oak and pine, have heavy mast years and lighter ones. This leads to abundant years for small mammals like chipmunks and squirrels. In leaner years, fewer chipmunks and squirrels (although most gardeners will tell you that there’s always too many).

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But I really have no explanation for this sago palm deciding that it will do this now.

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Maybe it decided that I needed something to cheer me up.

A Buggy Time of Year

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I mentioned on Monday that we had had the house power washed recently. That turned out to be a blessing in disguise.

Of course I had to move many of the over 100 house plants that I had brought outside so that they too wouldn’t be “power washed” or damaged in the process.

As I was doing so, I discovered that somehow the mealybug infestation that I had indoors had returned and had spread to several other plants.

Now, one of the reasons why I “summer” the plants outdoors is because a lot of these pesky plant issues have natural predators that are kept in check.

Scale, for instance, is nicely handled by wasps and ants.

And the hose washes off spider mites.

But apparently nothing likes mealy bugs. Doesn’t that figure?

Anyway, I found the problem, isolated the infected plants again, and we’ll see. I have one troublesome ficus that may just become compost at the end of the season.

So I definitely got much more than a power wash from this adventure!