Wednesday, February 7, 2018

A Profile In Diversity: The Holiday Cacti

            Generally speaking, most people think of cacti in a very limited light; they expect cacti to look like the Saguaro, Prickly pear, Barrel Cactus, or even the Mammillaria, and yet this is only part of the big picture when it comes to Cacti. To further blur the line, a lot of cacti don’t have the word cactus in their common name while a lot of succulents are called cacti but are not. A good example of the former is the Eve’s Needle (Austrocylindropuntia subulata) which is a true cactus and a relative in the Prickly pear family. An example of the latter is the Pencil Cactus (Euphorbia tirucali) which is not a true cactus. To add to this confusion, many thing that cacti grow only in deserts, and dry areas in the Midwest when in fact cacti have adapted to survive on mountainsides (san pedro cactus), grasslands (lawn peyote), and even in forests (the holiday cacti). The diversity as seen is quite impressive and thus many ask what defines a cactus since it’s known that all cacti are succulents, but not all succulents are cacti. The key defining features of a cactus are the following.

1.      They tend to originate from habitats with some level of regular drought.
2.      They show a number of adaptations that conserve water.
3.      They generally have a thickened stem structure that stores water.
4.      Most species have lost the ability to produce true leaves.
5.      The spines we see are actually highly modified leaves.
6.      Stems perform photosynthesis.
7.      Cacti often have shallow fibrous root systems designed to suck up any rain that may fall.
8.      Cacti stems are often ribbed which allows them to readily expand or contract during or after a rainfall.

So, with that said in this episode of LITFM, we are going to take a look at one of the most widely distributed true cacti in the world, the Holiday cactus. Now I know I did an episode on this prior but this year I have quite a number of photos to demonstrate the variety of colors that these forest cacti can bring into your home. But first, I know what some of you may be thinking, ‘Christmas Cacti are bland most of the year’, this is absolutely true however they are also one of the most tolerant easily propagated cacti known. This allows for someone to grow them with a minimum of fuss and very little special care other than a repotting every few years.
In fact, the holiday cactus are almost polar opposites in terms of care to what we would actually expect from a cactus, they like soil with organic content, don’t like being pot bound for too long and don’t like bright direct sun.  It is a common trick in the agriculture business to claim there is an absolute difference between the Easter, Christmas and Thanksgiving cacti when in fact, the only difference in their bloom time is how many photo periods of increasing and waning sunlight they are exposed to. Thus, you could get an Easter cactus to bloom at Christmas and a Thanksgiving cactus to bloom at Easter with careful management. Generally, there are two primary groups of Holiday cactus in the trade; (Schlumbergia truncata) Christmas Cactus and (Schlumbergia berkleyii) Thanksgiving Cactus. The two are differentiated by the fact that the first one has angular stem segments (they’re called pads) and is commonly also called crab cactus and the second one has rounded stem segments. Literally the number of photoperiods these two species of cacti see is all that differentiates their blooming time but of course we’ve seen this before as this is similar to what is done with Poinsettias and our perennial garden bulbs. Literally on a small scale we are playing a bit of god by tricking a somewhat simpler life form into performing its yearly ritual when it’s convenient for us. In the Agriculture trade we do this a lot; that’s why certain plants arrive at the nursery already blooming in spring, we manipulate temperatures and light and other tricks to get what we want.

But wait, there’s more, there is a third common member of the same family called Hatiora, these thin-stemmed cacti are a forest epiphyte and the most famous representative of this family is commonly called ‘Dancing Bones Cactus’, ‘Spice Cactus’ or, ‘Drunkard’s Dream’ (Hatiora salicornioides). The first name comes from the longer extended stem segments that look like bones and the fact that they tend to sway in the wind giving the illusion of dancing. The third common name comes from the shape of new and intermediate age stem segments which resemble wine bottles. I don’t precisely know where the second nickname came from, but the flowers of this cacti tend to be turmeric-yellow in color so that’s my best bet. The best part is that Drunkard’s Dream takes literally the same care as a Holiday cactus and tends to bloom roughly between February and April which gives it the common name of Easter Cactus. The difference between Drunkard’s Dream and the other holiday cacti is that you can perceive its active growth, as it’s a moderate to somewhat-fast grower especially during summer with regular water and modest fertilizing.

            Propagation of holiday cacti is very easy, simply twist off a stem that has at least three segments dip the open wound in powdered rooting hormone and stick the segment in a new pot with lightly moist soil mix and monitor for dryness over the next few weeks. The new plant should root in three to four weeks and if you are intending to sell, give it an extra four weeks and light fertilizer to get the pads to swell. For note, Schlumbergia, take a bit longer to get to a moderate saleable size often up to two or three months so plan ahead. If your taking cuttings to save a plant or as a gift then they are ready when a gentle tug on the cutting provides resistance. I should note that just because these cacti are forest cacti does not mean they will tolerate being exposed to very bright all-day sun (7+ hours) very cold, or constantly wet. But as promised I have pictures of this year’s Holiday Cactus display which started in December and is nearing its end in February.

Pink tubes, white petals - a true bicolor
 This one is the oldest Christmas cactus in the collection, it was bought at Home Despot in New Jersey and made the trip to NC with me back in 2009. the wispy green stuff in the background is the branches of a Hatiora salicornoides  whose origins I cannot recall but have been in that same pot for at least five or six years now.

This is one hell of a shade of red...three technically.

This Christmas cactus was added to the collection along with two others, and according to the color analysis software I used to try and get an idea of what shade of red it is, it's fire engine red, Cranberry red and Crimson depending on the angle. In case you are wondering the blossoms are crinkly like that because I think they got slightly frosted.

This was a mixed colors pot from the same source as the above red one. Pure white with pink accents and incredibly pink bordering on fuchsia. The next two photos are two angles on the same plant.

While labelled as Dark orange, I prefer to call it Fireball orange.
This is  the third one in that group of plants that came from a Sustainable neighbors Seed Swap. Before this Christmas Cactus I did not think they came in any true shade of orange.

Now with 20% more redness!
Here is another red one, labelled as 'very dark red' it sure lived up to it's name. The curling of the petals is an interesting touch. Much like all the schlumbergia in the collection, this is a crab cactus.

Quick shot of Limelight Christmas cactus about to bloom note the bud color.
Now for the big surprise, last year I was offering a unique variety of Christmas cactus called 'lime light' for sale at LeClair's General Store.  What made the variety interesting was that the parent plant demonstrated bold chartreuse blooms. What I did not expect was that the cuttings would throw a curve ball.  As you can see in this shot, the buds aren't white or yellow as expected but largely pink which should have been an indicator of what was about to happen. Normally with Christmas Cactus, the color of the buds is a strong hint to the final color of the bloom.

This true color shot seems to have skewed the color of this Lime Light.
Dancing Bones Cactus
Pictured here is the first bloom of 'Lime Light'. While I realize that the drop cloth and the true-color setting of the camera has skewed the actual color of the bloom,  the bright pink colors in the tube and reproductive parts is accurate. The bloom turned out to be more of a Chartreuse-yellow than a Chartreuse-Green. From my perspective though yellow or green on a Christmas cactus even with pink tones is still a rarity as they are colors you simply do not ever see. In the next week or so I will try a re-shoot of a 'Lime Light' in bloom as the heavily budded cactus in the above picture is about to bloom any day now. I hope I can have a better image up here in the next episode so all of you out there can get a real feel for what 'Lime Light' has to offer.

This is a close up of Hatiora salicornoides, while it is not in bloom you can see why it got the name 'Drunkard's Dream'. The stem segments with age get longer as you can see and they go from a young sort of beer bottle shape to a wine bottle shape and then eventually look like bones.

This brings to a close the first post of February 2018 and a decent look at the biology, growing habits and nature of the holiday cacti. For note this is where the advertising starts because it keeps the Test Garden’s supplied. As always barring terribly wet and cold weather or illness I still manage a vendor’s space at the Fayetteville City Market at 325 Maxwell street between 9:00 am and 1:00 pm on Saturdays. I sell four things primarily during the winter months and they are:

Soup Kits - $6.00
Seasoning Packets – $2.00
Whole Garlic – $1.00
Fresh Organic Ginger - $1.00

Also, I will be bringing a number of random house plants every week if weather permits and While the assortment is purely random, there is not a thing for sale that is above $8.00.

If the market isn’t your thing or your schedule does not allow you to go there my premium exotic house plants can be purchased in attractive clay pots with unique embellishments at LeClair’s General Store. LeClair’s General Store is located on 1212 Fort Bragg Road in Fayetteville North Carolina.

This is their Facebook Page:

The Visit NC page’s Listing:

These days I am generally at the store at least twice a week, maintaining stock and/or delivering new materials so if you go to visit the store there is a fair chance I’ll be present to answer your questions. If not, you can always send me questions through this blog or visit the farmer’s market or pay attention to what Sustainable Neighbors is doing at the link below.

            This brings to a close the third LITFM post of the new year, stay tuned the next episode which should be posted on the 21st of February. The topic will be: A Profile In Diversity: The Philodendron Family.

            Now is the time to start your hot-season annuals such as peppers, tomatoes and eggplant, but remember you may need a heat mat and humidity domes.