All about holiday cactuses and how to get them to bloom on time

Holiday cactuses are growing in popularity because, unlike other flowering gift plants that may be sometime things to love when in bloom and then discard, the cactuses are permanent house plants which can be easily coaxed into bloom on cue each year.

Moreover, they thrive in the average indoors and are ideal plants for lackadaisical plant lovers. They require little feeding, infrequent repotting, and no misting. Also, unlike other cactuses, they don't sting.

The only problem with growing these beautiful, easygoing plants is locating the correct one. Wen it comes to differentiating between the different kinds of holiday cactuses, most people become confused by their nearly identical appearence and then erroneously conclude that the three most popular varieties -- Thanksgiving cactus (Zygocactus truncatus), Christmas cactus (Schlumbergera birdgesee), and Easter cactus (Schlumbergera gaertneri) -- are one.

A number of unscrupulous florists have added to the confusion by labeling any flowering link-type cactus as "Chreaster cactus."

However, while all of the holiday cactuses, commonly named after their particular period of bloom, are related in origin (they all hail from the South American rain forests), appearence (all are composed of wide and fleshly dark-green stems that are linked at their tips like the components of a chain belt), and habit (to rebloom they require a yearly rest and a prolonged period of short days and long dark nights), there is a distinct difference.

The secret that you should know if you are to buy the right one, the one which will annually flower on the specific holiday you wish to commemorate, lurks in the teeth surrounding each clawlike stem. Just let your fingers do the walking and you'll feel your way to the cactus you want.

The one with sharp teeth commemorates Christmas; and the toothless one remembers Easter.

Whichever you opt for, make certain it has a large number of fully formed but closed buds, because its flowers will last longer than those of a cactus already in full bloom. In addition, you'll be able to watch the double- bracted, crimson-colored flowers unfold.

As with most plants success with these will depend on how closely you approximate their natural habitat -- a South American rain forest where they grow on tree trunks, and, unlike the desert cactuses, are exposed to ample nourishment, continuous moisture, and diffused sunlight.

To keep your holiday cactus happy and healthy, plant it in rich porous soil (like that of African violets), feed and water regularly, except during its dormant period (4 to 6 weeks following bloom), and shelter it from drafts and direct sunlight.

If you want your cactus to rebloom annually in time to celebrate the appropriate holiday with you, either move to the nearest rain forest or subscribe to the following simulation of the daily and seasonal atmospheric changes of its native home.

When you first bring the blooming cactus home place it in a bright and, if possible, cool location (75 degrees F. or less) where it will receive a minimum of three hours of light daily, keep its soil moist to the touch, and don't feed.

Once the flowers fade, in four to six weeks, cut off any straggly growth, and move the cactus to an even cooler (50 to 60 degrees F.) and shadier place. Leave it to rest with no food and little water -- once every three weeks will suffice -- for four to six weeks.

Past this dormant stage, return the cactus to a warmer and brighter location and increase your watering schedule to biweekly. Begin feeding it once every three weeks with a low-nitrogen but other wise complete water- soluble plant food at half the manufacturer's recommended dosage.

Repot the plant every third year. Use rich but porous soil, such as an equal mix of loam, peat moss, and coarse sand. Always provide a thick layer of drainage materials -- and inch per each four inches in the pot's diameter -- and don't plant in containers lacking drainage holes.

When new growth appears, increase your watering to once a week, and if you wish to increase your collection, simply break off a couple of newly grown stems.

Leave them to dry for three days, and then bury the broken stem ends, one-half inch deep, in a container filled with an equal mix of coarse sand and peat moss. Place in a shady location for five to six weeks, watering lightly every two weeks. Don't water during the first week, however. Within six weeks transplant the rooted cuttings to the regular soil mix, move them to a brightly lighted place, and treat as other holiday cactuses.

Continue your feeding and watering schedule until three months prior to your desired bloom date. Then decrease the watering to twice a month and feeding to once a month. Begin providing your cactus with 12 to 15 hours of uninterrupted darkness daily, either by covering the cactus with a paper bag or by hiding it in a cool, dark closet during the night (5 p.m. to 8 a.m., for example).

Holiday cactuses are photoperiodic, light sensitive, and require long dark nights for the initiation of their flower buds. Therefore, should light, natural or artificial, strike your cactus during its dark periods, it may fail to bloom on time. Similarly, you can fool your holiday cactus into celebrating any time of year by providing it with 70 consecutive days of long dark nights.

Discontinue closeting once the flower buds appear, and on the day before you want the flower buds to open, place the cactus overnight in a very cool spot, 45 to 50 degrees F., and your wish will unfold the next day.

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