Holiday Cacti are Pretty in Pink

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By Deb Quantock McCarey

Contributing reporter/Nature blogger

A couple of years ago, as a holiday hostess gift, I was handed a bloomin', so-called Christmas Cactus on December 25. 

And oh my...since then, it has certainly put on a holiday flower show.

Even so, this year, unexpectedly, the tropical cactus with the fluted pink blooms began bursting, at least from my perspective, too early.  It was November, not December, as it was in previous years.

I entered a state of kerfuffle, and then got to work.

First, I discovered that the tropical -- not desert -- cactus has three common varieties: Thanksgiving, Christmas and Easter Cactus. 

So, since the "true" Christmas Cactus is an interspecific hybrid of Schlumbergera truncata and Schlumbergera russelliana that originated about 150 years ago in England, and another source says that more than 300 years ago, Spanish explorers brought some of these plants from their expeditions to South America back to their native Spain, I'm inclined to think that the "Christmas Cacti" has deep roots.  

Another factoid:  Spanish Monks tended these new discoveries in their monastery gardens. The tropical cacti burst into brilliant red blooms just in time to decorate the chapels for Christmas and they have been in demand for holiday color ever since. 

I would have to agree with that. 

What's more, most commercial cultivars of holiday cactus are actually Schlumbergera truncata, commonly known as Thanksgiving cactus or Zygocactus. 

Now I know that it is a Thanksgiving Cactus I have, as mine has segments with conspicuous teeth on the margins, rounded ovaries with no ribs, and yellow anthers.  However, some cultivars of holiday cactus are derived from crossing Christmas Cactus and Thanksgiving Cactus, and have characteristics that are intermediate between the parents.

In addition, under natural photoperiods, Thanksgiving Cactus flowers about 4 to 6 weeks earlier than Christmas Cactus, as mine has this year.

And of course, I must share the science:  the winter bloom time is related to the fact that this is a short day plant, meaning that it begins to bloom when nights are at least 14 hours long and daylight periods are between 8-10 hours for 6 weeks.  Holiday Cacti will also begin to flower when exposed to prolonged cool temperatures between 50-55 degrees Fahrenheit.  No flowers will form at night with temperatures above 68 degrees, regardless of light length. 

It is also an easy-to-grow-and-care-for epiphyte-that is well suited for taking stem cuttings. Do that now, and in 4 to 6 weeks, be ready to spread some New Years cheer...or give a home grown hostess gift, perhaps?

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