In the (house) with Ed: Holiday cactus

Well, dear reader, it’s your lucky day. A day to remember.

I’m about to tell you how you can tell the difference between a Thanksgiving cactus and a Christmas cactus. Indeed!

Most people have no trouble pairing a poinsettia with Christmas and an Easter lily with Easter. Holiday cacti are a bit more, hmmm, mysterious especially since the two share the same basic flower, foliage, and flowering time. After the reveal, we will discuss how to take care of these wonderful plants.

Ready? Sure. Here we are.

None of the cacti have conventional leaves. Instead, their green-gray foliage is called phylloclades and it is here that photosynthesis takes place. Some call it a rod segment. Look closely at these segments. Is the edge serrated with two to four sawtooth patterns? If so, the plant is a Thanksgiving cactus (Schlummergera truncate).

Conversely, these stem segments are more rounded on the Christmas cactus (Schlummergera x loopyi).

Another distinction. Yellow pollen on the tip of the anther = Thanksgiving. Purplish brown pollen = Christmas.

Is the distinction important? Not really but maybe useful in a game of Scrabble, Trivial Pursuit or who knows what.

Both types need the same conditions inside your home. Strong points:

Slightly tied to the pot – no need to transplant a healthy and productive plant for three years.

Potting medium – well drained and with good ventilation. Potting soil used outdoors or for most houseplants is likely to retain too much moisture and should be avoided. See if you can find a mix that’s close to 70% potting soil and 30% perlite. It would be light and the excess moisture would drain off easily and quickly (perlite is those little white things that are found in potting soil and can be purchased separately).

Light – Like poinsettias, this plant is sensitive to excess light from September when shorter days trigger bud formation. From that point on, growers would take steps to ensure the crop had 14 or more hours of continuous darkness each day – and for a period of six weeks. And for their “day”, they like it bright.

This regiment is difficult to imitate here. At best, I would recommend moving the plant to a place where there is no artificial light after sunset but bright light during the days.

Watering – Take it slow – stitch around the backing and if it feels dry to the touch, provide water, throwing whatever drains into the saucer below.

And There you go. Fairly easy, really, but difficult for lighting purposes. And yes, I’ve seen holiday cacti bloom gloriously over the winter without any of these steps being taken beforehand – and the plant is in its glory.

Plants, like humans, can have their own strong minds.

Edward (Ed) Hutchison writes a weekly column “In the Garden with Ed” for the Midland Daily News.

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