One lived with me while I was growing up. Gram was a woman ahead of her time. Well into her 70s, she managed an old-fashioned drug store, complete with soda and lunch counter. Off she went to work six days a week. Tuesday was her day off, and on that day she would get dressed up, catch the bus and go shopping in downtown Baltimore. One of my first clear memories was the day she took me with her, complete with white gloves, “to town,” to lunch and to the movies. What was playing that day? “The Sound of Music.” Gram was a busy gal.
Now, my grandmother Rose was another story. Like many of her generation she had lived her life gardening out of necessity – if you wanted to eat, you had to garden. By the time I really got to know her, she had moved to an upstairs apartment, and her gardening was reduced to houseplants. But what houseplants she had! Grandmom had the most unbelievable African violets. I remember my mother used to be so jealous because she couldn’t keep an African violet alive to save her soul. And every holiday season, Grandmom had a magnificent Christmas cactus.
Christmas cactus’ claim to fame sometimes is the fact that they can, and have, been passed down generation to generation. It is not unusual at all for someone to have one that belonged to their grandmother or great-grandmother, hence the term “grandmother plant.” Since Christmas cactus are among the easiest of the winter blooming houseplants to divide and share, their reputation is well deserved. Although classified as a tropical plant, it is an extremely easy, but beautiful and showy plant that’s easy to grow if you are a novice gardener. With bright pink, red or pale whitish pink blooms, they are a rare treat during a cold, dark winter which may be why they remain so popular.
Although called Christmas cactus, in reality they are in the zygocactus family, and many of them bloom for Thanksgiving. Vic often says that they should be called Thanksgiving cactus or holiday cactus. There is a true Christmas cactus, genus schlumbergera, which only comes in red but is difficult to find and generally is not available.
The trick to making a Christmas cactus bloom is the same thing as with a poinsettia – natural daylight. From Sept. 25 on, make certain that the plant is exposed only to natural daylight, receiving no artificial light from indoor lamps in the evenings. You’ll want to be sure it receives approximately 12-14 hours of darkness each day to encourage the buds to develop and flower. Continue this dark, cool treatment for 6-8 weeks or until blooms appear. Once the blooms have formed, move your cactus to a sunny location. The more light you give it, the more blooms it will produce. Christmas cactus will bloom better if they are pot-bound as well, so don’t be in a big hurry to transplant if the plant gets large. Keeping it dry and cool for this period of time will also help to initiate buds.
Keep the temperatures above 50 degrees and the correct amount of water which means don’t over water. Since it is a tropical plant, you want to mimic the conditions found in the tropics- high humidity. You can do this by placing it in a pan of pebbles or having a container of water next to the plant. This is especially important in our dry climate.
If you want to start your own legacy with this plant, simply break off a piece to share with your family and friends. Take a short, Y-shaped segment from healthy plant foliage. Place in potting soil, moisten evenly and place in a well lit location, but out of direct sunlight. Transplant when the cutting shows signs of growth.
Among the most beautiful and vibrant of the winter flowering plants, Christmas cactus is well worth the effort!
As traditional as turkey, each Thanksgiving, brings back fond memories of Grandmom’s Christmas cactus. And for many people, Christmas cactus, along with cyclamen which I’ll discuss in the next column, are affectionately known as “Grandmother plants.” They are the ones we remember from childhood as our grandmothers having on their windowsills. But they are still beautiful and popular and make great houseplants or hostess gifts for Thanksgiving. So consider one of them to grace your Thanksgiving table this month when you go off to Grandmother’s house!
Gail Vanik can be reached at 970-565-8274 or by email at email@example.com.