Sunday, November 25, 2012

Meet the Houseplants: Part 1

Welcome back to another episode of Lost in the Farmer's Market As you may have noticed due to the holidays and college assignments there have not been updates in the prior weeks. You need not worry, the replacement posts are coming shortly starting with this one. Originally I was planning to talk about food security some more but again due to the number of papers due for college assignments the food security research has been shelved for a later date when I’m not buried in assignments. Instead of food security today’s topic is about a commonly seen house plant that has started to show up for sale in stores in droves.

So in keeping with the line of discussion which for this time of the year leans into houseplant territory I would like to talk about one of the few houseplants that I can honestly say for the longest time I did not like.  Generally around the holidays the two plants seen the most in stores are Poinsettias and the two species of holiday cactus. For the purposes of this article I am speaking of the latter rather then the former. For those who know it by other names 'Holiday' cactus is my generalized term for a group of succulents that are known for the bloom times which correspond with one of three holidays, Easter, Christmas or thanksgiving.   The three species are as follows below:

[No picture available]
Rhipsalidopsis gaetneri - Easter Cactus

A group of cactus blooms as seen from above in several states of opening.

The blooms from a below angle

Note the angular parts of the leaf-pads, someone at some point they resembled the bodies of crabs and thus the common name 'Crab Cactus' came about.

Admittedly I do not have a photo of an Easter cactus but I do have images from the collection of the other two. My Christmas cactus however is too young to bloom so only the pads are pictured to show their shape.

I encountered the Christmas cacti group around 1999, when I went to work at Van Vleck House and Gardens, which was a private botanical garden located in Montclair New Jersey. The Horticultural director there was a guy named Stephan Schuckman. What made it interesting was that he was a complete and absolute Christmas cacti aficionado, literally there were hundreds of varieties there at the time in numerous shades, shapes and, colors. At the time, I had not gained an appreciation for cacti and succulents at the time and wrote the following in my horticultural notes regarding the Christmas cacti.

"There is no other plant I know that is so incredibly boring for about eleven months a year just to get a brief two-week bloom."

For those of you who don’t know it is important to note that the holiday cactus is actually succulents, and they come from South America. This actually makes them epiphytic or semi-epiphytic as their biology is designed to propagate the plants with or without seed production. Generally holiday cactus and other similar species of segmented succulents can self propagate by a process called shattering. Shattering occurs when the given plant is under extreme stress, and the response is the separation of the individual pads or leaf segments which hopefully are moved by animals wind or water to better conditions. Root rot actually can cause shattering in holiday cactus which can be a method of rescuing a specimen that has caught a root disease.

What makes the holiday cactus plants so wide spread as gifts during the holidays is their incredible ease of care. Their soil should be a basic potting mix with a little extra sand for drainage.  Unlike a lot of true cactus and some varieties of succulents holiday cacti literally can grow successfully in the same sorts of potting mixes you would use for a common house plant such as a Philodendron as long as you mind how often you water. The plants pictured in this article are generally watered perhaps once every two weeks and even then not enough that there is runoff. Additionally unlike a number of house plants Christmas cacti benefit from being outside for as long as the temperatures permit as the natural light aids in bud formation. Much like poinsettias and chrysanthemums holiday cactus's flower formation is relative to the length and intensity of daylight, as the shortening of day length prompts these plants to bloom.

The irony is now; there is always at least one holiday cactus in my collection as I've come to appreciate the key aspects of the plant.  It spends most of the year sandwiched between the Rhipsalis out on the deck, but as the photos show when it is blooming it becomes a table decoration to brighten up the holidays. In that light, it is also quite amazing how your mind can change with time and experience, to that end I suggest you try a holiday cactus as far as easy house plants go I would say this one if pretty easy and they make a nice colorful gift.

I have to say this post replaced the original planned post about food security for several reasons, most of which pertain to research issues and college workload. Don’t worry the food security stuff will be back as soon as I get a moment to really dig into the information and verify the facts around it.  My next post will cover a relative of Holiday cactus, the Rhipsalis genus. For note both schlumbergia and rhipsalis belong to the Rhipsalideae 'tribe' so they are distinctly related, but it is not clear until they bloom.

Happy thanks giving and as always folks Keep 'em growing!

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