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See the beauty in the Christmas cactus

You can find Christmas cactus available from the beginning of November till the first part of the year.

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Blooming Christmas cactus adorn many nurseries and common outlets during this time of year. John Zvirovski / The Jamestown Sun

We all remember the story about the ugly duckling that turned into a beautiful swan. And we all figured out later in life that a young swan is a cygnet and not a duckling. The same thing applies to many plants in the natural world. The one that comes to mind during this time of year is that of the Christmas cactus.

It is referred to as a cactus, but in all reality, it is not a cactus at all nor does it require the same care as a cactus. The Christmas cactus itself is actually closer related to the orchids and bromeliads of the tropic regions. In fact, in its native habitat, it often grows in the forks of tree limbs growing in decaying organic matter and with high humidity. In the home, it requires similar types of conditions to do well and eventually bloom.

Like the ugly duckling, the Christmas cactus is not an overly appealing plant when it is growing. However, when the plant sets buds and begins to bloom, it takes on a character all on its own. With its beautiful orchid-like flowers blooming from every end of your plant, you come to appreciate the result of your patience. They come in wonderful shades of red, pink, white, lavender, yellow and orange and are completely different from any other flowers you will grow.

In our local nurseries and garden centers, you will find these wonderful plants available from the beginning of November till the first part of the year. On occasion, you will see them sold in March and April during the Easter season. Of course, they are then called the Easter cactus.

Truth be told, there are some differences between the various holiday cacti. The Thanksgiving cactus blooms closer to that season and has sharper cut leaves. The Christmas cactus has a round-edged leaf and blooms around the Christmas season. The Easter cactus has sharp leaves like the Thanksgiving cactus, but also has flowers that have pointed tips as opposed to the rounder petals of the Christmas cactus. The differences between them are quite minute, but the markets sell them during their natural bloom times, so sometimes that is the easiest way for identification.

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When getting a "holiday" cactus, always check for the overall health of the plant. The plant should have nice, green, sturdy leaves with good structure and a solid base. If they already have buds or flowers on them, take special care not to expose them to temperature extremes when transporting them from one location to another. Any sudden change in temperature will cause the flower buds to drop prematurely.

Holiday cactus like to be somewhat pot bound while growing for best results. When transplanting them, during their growing stage, make sure the container is only slightly larger than the one it came from. A well-drained mixture of equal parts potting soil, peat or compost, and sharp sand or perlite are best for strong root production.

They prefer a well-lit location, but not direct sunlight as this may burn the leaves or turn them reddish in color. Unlike true cactus, the Holiday cacti prefer to be watered when the top inch of soil is dry to the touch. Depending on its location, this could be once every two to three days or once a week. Always remember to be consistent on its watering schedule to allow it to have the best conditions. Over-watering this plant will cause the leaves and stems to rot and could be potentially fatal.

To allow for the right amount of humidity for this plant, simply set the pot onto a tray of rocks filled with water. Make sure the container itself is not sitting in the water and allow the water to evaporate through the leaves. An occasional misting of the leaves with tepid water will also treat this plant well.

To start new plants, simply pinch off a three-leaf segment during the growing season and place it in 1 inch of a similar potting mixture as that of the parent plant. This cutting should develop roots within two to three weeks of planting. The cutting should also be planted in a container no larger than 3 inches in diameter at this stage.

To get the holiday cactus to bloom and rebloom, you need to place them into similar conditions as the Poinsettia. The main difference being, the Poinsettias prefer temperatures of 65 to 75 degrees, and the cacti prefer temperatures closer to 50 degrees. They are triggered into the bloom stage by the daylight hours and temperatures, so like the Poinsettia, they prefer 12 hours of darkness per day for at least 30 days to set flower buds. Once the flower buds have been set, they can be placed back into a cool well-lit location to enjoy the blooms for up to six weeks.

Some of these plants have been handed down from generation to generation and can become quite large. One plant owned by a friend of mine was at least 75 years old and produced well over 100 blooms in justone holiday season. The show this particular cactus put on during that Christmas was astonishing to say the least!

Even if you do not own one of these plants, I encourage you to go to your local nurseries or garden centers and see these amazing plants in bloom during this time of year. You may find you just can’t leave without purchasing one for your collection.

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As with many things we have around us throughout the year, they may seem dull and mundane most of the time, but then their season comes along and they burst into something amazing that we have long taken for granted. Emulating that ugly duckling in its early stages, the season comes for the Christmas cactus to bloom into a beautiful majestic swan! Take a chance on something new and watch it take flight into the unexpected.

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