Deb Babcock: Colorful Christmas cactus makes its debut

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Deb Babcock

Deb Babcock's gardening column appears Thursdays in Steamboat Today.

Find more gardening columns here.

— One of the most striking plants that we see during the holidays is the Christmas cactus (Schlumbergera Buckleyi) with its cascade of leaf-like arms linked to one another with pink or red flowers that appear between the leaves and at the ends of the draping arms.

This plant grows in the mountainous coastal region in Brazil near Sao Paulo, Rio de Janiero and further north where it is cooler and moist from rain and cloudy conditions.

The flowers of Christmas cactus are pollinated in the wild by hummingbirds who are drawn to the beautiful color as well as the abundant nectar in the flower.

The Schlumbergera species of cactus was brought to Europe in the early 1800s and was cultivated and cross-bred with Schlumbergera truncata and Schlumbergera russelliana until the hybrid Buckleyi (named after horticulturist William Buckley at the Rollisson Nurseries in England) was introduced in the 1852.

As a houseplant, the Christmas cactus is pretty easy to maintain. The growing medium needs to be a well-drained, loose collection of humus, peat, sand or even the little polystyrene beads. The plant should be kept in a relatively small, shallow pot. It can be damaged by too much water or too little water, so it’s best to keep the growing medium just slightly moist all the time.

The Christmas cactus doesn’t need a lot of bright light and can be damaged by too much, turning the foliage a reddish tint. Too little light will prevent the plant from flowering. One of the keys to getting your Christmas Cactus to flower at the holiday is a period of time in mid-October when the plant is placed in a cool, dark location — 12 hours of darkness is ideal. Do this for six to eight weeks until you see buds start to form, then bring it out into the light for blooming.

The plant should be kept away from drafty areas and heating vents that emit hot air.

It only needs minimal fertilizing, about two to four times per year during its growth times. Use a blooming plant fertilizer, following the directions on the back of the package.

Only two insect pests are really known to bother this plant: aphids on young shoots, buds and flowers as well as mealybugs, which will attack the roots. Fungal diseases also can occur if the plant is kept too moist.

The plant is best pruned following its blooming period if you want it to branch out a little more and promote more root growth. Either pinch off the leaves with your fingers or use a clean sharp knife. You can propagate the plant by placing these pruned sections in a root-starting mixture.

A properly cared for Christmas cactus can live for 20 years or more, bringing you great joy throughout the year as well as during the holidays.

Deb Babcock is a master gardener through the CSU Extension Routt County. Call 970- 879-0825.

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