Cactus

Courtesy of JILL ROHRER

Though not a cactus, the Christmas cactus is the ideal indoor plant, blooming in the middle of winter, often timing with the holidays. 

First off, Merriam-Webster set me straight. Again. The plural of cactus is — are you ready? — cactuses, cacti and yes, cactus.

I agree with the first two, but not ‘cactus.’ Just like I don’t get it when people come back from a bear-viewing trip and declare, “I saw three bear!” What’s with that? It was several years ago when I started hearing ‘bear’ used in reference to more than one bear. It raised the [bear] hair on the back of my [bare] neck. More on that later. 

Now to Christmas cactus. Fall and the pending winter is when we turn more of our attention to indoor activities. And for many of us, this means we start noticing our houseplants for the first time since last March. One plant in particular, the Christmas cactus, is a tabletop icon in Kodiak. You may have noticed an increasing number of posts showing giant and bold-bloomed Christmas cactuses on Facebook.

It’s no wonder. What makes these plants icons is their ability to bloom when everything else outside looks brown and reserved, save for Sitka spruce. It’s for that reason that Schlumbergeras became such a popular ornamental plant in the mid 1800s.

But not all Christmas cacti bloom when we expect. That is, in time for the holidays. Here is a sampler of disgruntled cactus owners:

 “My cactus never blooms.”

“Why are the blooms yellow, not red?”

“Why do the buds form and then drop off?”

“Why do the leaves shrivel up like prunes?”

Ah, misunderstandings. George Bernard Shaw said, “The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.”

So, we seek out information, often going online. That’s where we can get into trouble. “Beware of the half-truth,” I read the other day. “You may have gotten hold of the wrong half.”

This is so often the case when it comes to Christmas cactuses. 

For one thing, a Christmas cactus (in the genus Schlumergera) isn’t a cactus at all. This innocent plant that quietly suffers on many a shelf and table, wishes it could be back home.

And what is home, you ask? In humid, tropical jungles of South America. Christmas cacti are not from the hot, sandy desert. They are epiphytes, tree-perching plants (epiphytes) or growing on rocks (lithophytes). Now you understand why our dry interior spaces spell misery for these poor plants.

The dangling, tubular flowers of the Christmas cactus, also known as crab cactus, begin as buds that ‘set’ in early autumn for a blooming period around Christmas. These flower buds start to form as autumn progresses with longer, cooler nights.

So here’s the problem: As the cool weather kicks in, so does the heating system in most homes and office buildings. The resulting hot, dry air can destroy buds and cause emerging flowers to simply fall off before they get a chance to show their stuff.

Here is a list of tips to give your Christmas cactus a bloomin’ chance:

Container and soil: Christmas cacti grow well in most container soils, so long as it drains well. Which means make sure that your pots have drainage holes.

Dry or moist? Keep the soil moist (somewhere between bone dry and soggy). But you want to think like a plant, not act like a clock. If, when you touch the soil with your finger and it feels dry, soak the soil until water runs through the pot’s drainage holes. Toss out the water in the tray (and into the compost bucket, by the sink, right?) so the plant doesn’t sit in it. And make that your soil doesn’t get too dry while buds are forming.

Mist your Christmas cactus with water several times a week. This increases the humidity levels around the plant, and it helps keep the leaves dust free. If your cactus is especially dusty, give it a shower. 

Light: Keep plants in bright, but indirect light. Tropical forests have dappled, not direct, light. Also, rotate it every week or when you water so that it gets even light.

Bloom time: When the buds of your Christmas cactus look as if they’re about to burst open, make sure you water the plant regularly and keep it cool.

Troubleshooting:

If your cactus is not blooming: It may be due to the amount of daylight they’re getting or the temperature.

To trigger blooming, nights need to be at least 14 hours long and days between 8 to 10 hours for six weeks. 

According to the Old Farmer’s Almanac, “Flowers will only form when the temperature is between a cool 50 to 55°F (10 to 13°C).” Hmmm. Good luck with that. And if your Christmas cactus drops its buds one winter, don’t worry: it should bloom the following year. That’s the theory.

On the other hand…

Blossom drop: If your Christmas cactus is exposed to stress, the plant will probably react by dropping its blossoms. Stress can come in the form of a sudden change in temperature, as in transporting it from house to another, or if the soil dries out to the consistency of a cow pie in the desert.

Pests: These plants may be susceptible to mealy bugs and, if over-watered, root rot. If you have problems, cut out infected areas and repot in clean soil.

Re-potting: Some sources claim it’s best to transplant every year after blooming. That’s open for debate. Best to not wait 10 years, though.

Meanwhile, I looked up ‘bear’ in the Merriam-Webster dictionary. Guess what? The plural ‘bear’ is ‘bears.’ A tiny victory. Then I scrolled down and read through the definitions of bear which included: “something difficult to do or deal with.” Such as, “it’s a bear to clean a dusty Christmas cactus.”

But oh, it makes a Christmas cactus a merry one!

 

Marion’s 2020 Goodness from Kodiak wall calendars are available at Monk’s Rock, Kodiak Marine Supply and the new Islander Bookshop on Mill Bay Rd. To sign up for Marion’s “Goodness from Kodiak” newsletter, visit her blog at MarionOwenAlaska.com or find her on Facebook and Instagram. Marion can be reached at mygarden@alaska.net.

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