For Christmas cactus to bloom, you must 're-create' a jungle habitat

The ideal plant to fill the gap between the chrysanthemum and poinsettia in the home is the Christmas and/or thanksgiving cactus. The form of the flowers of both plants somewhat resemble the fuchsia with starry, pendulous blossoms that appear at the tips of flat, leaflike stems. The odd leaflike stem structure is what distinguishes these plants which belong to the genus Schlumbergera.m

The thanksgiving cactus (S. trancata)m -- also known as crab, claw, yoke, or lobster cactus -- has sharp teeth along the edges of each stem segment with small slender bristles between the teeth. It flowers early, starting in October , and usually peaks around Thanksgiving Day.

The stem segments of the Christmas cactus (S. bridgesii)m , formerly called zygocactus, have rounded edges which look Scalloped. Flowering occurs later than the Thanksgiving cactus -- from November to January, but generally peaking at Christmas.

Both plants are known for their longevity. Plants 25 years or older are not uncommon; and some even have become family heirlooms which are handed down from one generation to the next.

Originally, the species came from the Brazilian forests where they grow naturally in decayed vegetable matter in the crotches and on the limbs of trees, not as a parasite but only using the tree for support, just as orchids do.

There they receive filtered light and are in constant dampness with perfect drainage during the rainy season beginning in October.

To keep a jungle environment you need to provide a humusy soil. While they bloom best when potbound, you may need to repot them after three or four years when the roots simply become too crowded.

The soil mixture should be a blend of coarse sand, good garden soil, and coarsely granulated peat with dried cow manure or other organic material. Mix thoroughly, especially if you use coarse peat.

The plants have two rest periods, or dormant stages, which coincide with their natural habitat before and after the rainy season. One rest period comes just before flowering in the fall. If you've had your plants outdoors during the summer months, move them inside before the first frost and place them in a northeast window in about a 60 degree F. temperature. There they will receive short days to spur flower buds at the tips.

Cover them with a box or paper bag. You also can place them in a closet to make sure they do not get artificial light. Water only enough to keep the stems from shriveling.

The other rest period follows flowering. Follow the same procedure. When the tips of the leaves show growth, water and feed. Correct watering during blooming is crucial. Too much water causes the blooms to drop and the plants to rot. Feel the soil before you water. Use a fish emulsion or a one-quarter strength of any water-soluble fertilizer once every three weeks.

This rest period is a good time to repot.

You can place the plants outdoors in light or partial shade from spring through summer, yet they do equally well indoors. Feed the plants with a weak fertilizer solution, fish emulsion, bone meal, or superphosphate scratched into the soil.

Water when the soil feels dry, but again, do not overwater.

If mealy bugs or scale insects cling to the stems, spray with malathion or swab on rubbing alcohol. A steady stream of water from a faucet will get rid of minor infections.

If you want additional plants, get them from slips or cuttings. When plants are in a rest stage take the cuttings with three or four leaf sections. Let these dry and callous. Then place the slips in an equal mixture of peat, sand, or vermiculite with two or three joints above the surface.

Keep the medium damp, but not wet. Cover with glass or a polyethylene bag so as to hold in the humidity and then place in a bright light. Cuttings also will root in water.

After the roots have formed, pot in the kind of soil already described, remembering to assure good drainage.

Would you like flowers and fruits together? Simply transfer the pollen from the flowers of one plant (not cuttings from the same parent plant) to the flowers of another. You can even use pollen from two different varieties. Rub one blossom against the other or use a brush. At first the fruits are small and green (one-half inch, or so, by June), but by Christmastime they are red.

The Easter cactus (S. Gairtneri)m looks like the others but has flatter branches with longer, duller green branches which are tinged with purple. Bright red blossoms two to three inches long appear around April, giving the plant its name.

New varieties have been appearing almost every year.

The white Christmas cactus, for example, has pinkish-white blossoms with a stripe of fuchsia down the center of each bloom. Then there is a bicolor of white and rose; and a salmon pink. Further, there are Red Radiance, Twilight Tangerine, Lavender Doll (a pure lavender or orchid), and Peach Parfait, wiht dark-green foliage and peachy orange blooms.

Try these others for color, variety, and versatility. When buying, however, don't make the mistake of choosing one with the buds too small. Make sure the buds are at least an inch across and you can see the color of the flowers.

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