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.

Natural Phenomenon

Alien crop circle? Or something else?

First, what is this photo trying to show? I took the picture and if I didn’t know, I am not sure that I would know what I was looking at.

Eastern white pine–in fall foliage shedding mode

Is this clearer? It might be–but it still might not look good. And while I can say that pine needles are never fun to try to clean up in the fall, what you are looking at is a perfectly normal and natural phenomenon.

People think that evergreens are exactly that–evergreen. But all evergreens lose some portion of their needles or foliage every year. Usually it is about one third of the old needles for needled evergreens like my pines, here.

In drought years, like this one, evergreens might lose a bit more foliage because they have been stressed by the drought. I expect that’s what’s happening with my pines this year.

For broad-leafed evergreens like azaleas, rhododendron, boxwood and holly, the same rules generally apply, but the timing may be different.

And of course, there are completely deciduous rhododendron–but that’s not what we’re talking about here.

So if you see an evergreen losing its foliage, take a closer look. It may be nothing more than the seasonal shedding of some old needles.

Fabulous Fall

Hardwood stand of oaks, maples and a few other trees

The fall colors really have been nice this year despite everything and the mild weather has enabled them to last a bit longer into the fall.

Leaf piles

But as you can see by the beginning of our wall of leaves here and my neighbor’s budding pile across the street, all that beauty is limited.

Tree canopy

And all of this still has to fall. As I walk out with with the dog, or walk out to the car, I can hear the falling leaves come down. At times, it almost sounds like raindrops.

Yesterday when I was out with the dog, we stopped by another neighbor who was raking. I remarked that all the people who come here to see our beautiful leaves never think about all the work that they are.

She agreed–but then added that it had been a gorgeous year for leaves. So I guess this is definitely a case of having a little bit of bad with a lot of good!

Indoor Food Gardening

Chile pepper growing in hydroponic garden

This is one of my pandemic discoveries. After losing too many vegetables to the roving parade of critters that call my yard home (more about that in a moment), I decided that if I wanted vegetables, I had to grow them indoors.

Mind you, this is entirely my own fault. Since I “married ” this property (along with the Spoiler over 25 years ago, I have done nothing but improve it for wildlife and convert it to organic gardens.

So now we have, as the Spoiler likes to say, every bird in Hartford County, along with those just passing through, as well as all sorts of other wildlife as well. It’s wonderful for the wildlife–just don’t try to harvest a tomato or some lettuce!

So last year I bought my little hydroponic garden and it’s been wonderful. We get all the lettuce we want, we can grow flowers, plants and herbs if we choose to, and I am trying dwarf tomatoes again. Not sure how they will do in my freezing house but I may get some before winter sets in–they’re already flowering.

Chile pepper grown outside

What I wanted to highlight though was the difference between these two chile peppers. Both were started in the hydroponic garden. The one above, in the clay pot, I obviously transplanted and grew outside all summer.

The one at the top of the post about to flower has only been growing since mid-summer. But notice how much larger its leaves are and how much darker its color is. It is much happier.

Similarly, the kale I grew (we just finished our last bit Friday night) was different too. It was more tender because it hadn’t been blown by wind and battered by rain. It was delicious.

You don’t need a fancy hydroponic setup to grow indoors but as winter comes to North America, you will need supplemental lights. There are several good books about indoor growing, and some about indoor food growing as well.

Supposedly my tomatoes will need hand pollination. I will try the “gentle shaking” method that I use for my citrus and we’ll see. I am not much of a bee….