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How to keep your Christmas cactus happy and bright

This succulent makes a great gift and can rebloom for many years to come

Most Christmas cactus sold now are hybrids, which come in several colors beyond magenta or white.

Most Christmas cactus sold now are hybrids, which come in several colors beyond magenta or white. Debbie Arrington

Cactus for Christmas? In California, Schlumbergera – the Christmas cactus – has become ubiquitous during the holiday season.

According to floral experts, this succulent is the second most popular holiday plant for gift giving, behind only poinsettias. Unlike poinsettias, Christmas cactus are much easier to get to rebloom – and these plants can live more than 100 years.

Like other succulents, they’re easy care, easy to divide and easy to share with friends. That also makes Christmas cactus perfect for the season of giving.

Christmas cactus became holiday stars because they bloom in mid-winter. An epiphyte native to Brazil, these plants grow on moss-covered trees in rain forests. They like indirect light, some humidity and relatively warm temperatures – about 65 to 70 degrees. That makes them an ideal houseplant, too.

Most of the Christmas cactus now selling in nurseries and stores are Schlumbergera x buckleyi; that’s actually a hybrid cross of Thanksgiving cactus and true Christmas cactus species, combining the best traits of each. It has more color possibilities (including Christmas red) than true Christmas cactus while blooming later than Thanksgiving varieties.

Thanksgiving cactus (Schlumbergera truncata)which tends to bloom in November as its name implies, has very pointed claw-shaped projections on the end of its segmented leaves. It also has the widest color range: White, pink, red, peach, purple, orange and combinations. Its flowers tend to point upwards.

cactus-leaves.jpg
True Christmas cactus has flat segmented leaves
with a few notches around the edges

True Christmas cactus (Schlumbergera russelliana), which blooms in late December, comes in two hues: Magenta and white. Its flat segmented leaves are the smoothest, with a few notches around the edges. Its long tubular flowers dangle at the end of its long stems, making this an ideal hanging plant.

These two cacti have a close cousin that blooms in early spring: Easter cactus (Rhipsalidopsis gaetneri). When not in flower, it looks very similar to Christmas cactus but blooms later (typically March) and has tiny bristles on the edge of its leaf segments. (It’s the one that most likely will prick your fingers.) Its flowers are star-shaped instead of tubular and very vibrant in shades of white, peach, magenta, pink, red, purple and orange.

Easter cactus bloom last because they need the most darkness to prompt blooms. Thanksgiving and Christmas cactus need about six weeks of short days (with more than 13 hours of darkness), while Easter cactus requires 12 weeks of long nights.

That’s the key to getting these cacti to rebloom year after year: Make sure they get enough darkness (and a little cool) in the early fall. Schlumbergera need exposure to cooler temperatures (55 degrees) as well as darkness to cue its bloom cycle.

The easiest way to assure your cactus doesn’t miss its blooming cues: Put it outside in a shaded, protected spot in summer. Once the buds start to form in November, bring the plant back indoors.

Here are some more tips to keep your Christmas (or other holiday) cactus looking good:

* Treat your cactus much like a poinsettia. These succulents prefer temperatures on the warm side, ideally 65 degrees.

hybrid-cactus-leaves.jpg
Hybrid varieties have more points on the leaves.

* Make sure its pot has drainage. Poke holes in foil if the plant comes gift wrapped.

* While assuring good drainage, keep soil evenly moist while cactus is blooming, misting it once a day. The flowers appreciate that extra humidity.

* These plants need moderate light to bloom. Place the cactus in an east-facing window so it can get some direct sun.

* But keep it away from heat or drafts; that will cause it to drop its buds.

* To keep this cactus in flower longer, fertilize every two weeks with high-potassium fertilizer designed for houseplants.

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Garden Checklist for week of June 23

Get to work in the mornings while it’s still cool.

* Irrigate early in the day; your plants will appreciate it.

* Generally, tomatoes need deep watering two to three times a week, but don't let them dry out completely. That can encourage blossom-end rot.

* Let the grass grow longer. Set the mower blades high to reduce stress on your lawn during summer heat. To cut down on evaporation, water your lawn deeply during the early hours of the morning, between 2 and 8 a.m.

* Tie up vines and stake tall plants such as gladiolus and lilies. That gives their heavy flowers some support.

* Dig and divide crowded bulbs after the tops have died down.

* Feed summer flowers with a slow-release fertilizer.

* Mulch, mulch, mulch! This “blanket” keeps moisture in the soil longer and helps your plants cope during hot weather.

* Avoid pot “hot feet.” Place a 1-inch-thick board under container plants sitting on pavement. This little cushion helps insulate them from radiated heat.

* Thin grapes on the vine for bigger, better clusters later this summer.

* Cut back fruit-bearing canes on berries.

* Feed camellias, azaleas and other acid-loving plants. Mulch to conserve moisture and reduce heat stress.

* Cut back Shasta daisies after flowering to encourage a second bloom in the fall.

* Trim off dead flowers from rose bushes to keep them blooming through the summer. Roses also benefit from deep watering and feeding now. A top dressing of aged compost will keep them happy. It feeds as well as keeps roots moist.

* Pinch back chrysanthemums for bushier plants with many more flowers in September.

* From seed, plant corn, pumpkins, radishes, melons, squash and sunflowers.

* Plant basil to go with your tomatoes. 

* Transplant summer annuals such as petunias, marigolds and zinnias.

* It’s also a good time to transplant perennial flowers including astilbe, columbine, coneflowers, coreopsis, dahlias, rudbeckia, salvia and verbena.

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