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Holiday cactus.

During the holiday season, Christmas cactus hold their blossoms like colorful birds perching on the tips of dark green branches. Years of breeding have produced an array of jewel-tone colors in shades of lavender, pink, orange, red, white, and--just recently--yellow. Most existing reds tend toward pink or orange, but this year two new varieties ('Sleighbell' and 'Pasadena') are true apple red. Other recent developments from a Florida grower are plants with thicker leaves, more upright branches with larger buds, and wider petals that give the flowers a fuller look (see 'Cambridge' and 'Sanibel' on page 51).

COLLECT HOLIDAY CACTUS

FOR EXTENDED BLOOM

Once known as Zygocactus, all Thanksgiving and Christmas cactus are now classified as Schlumbergera. (Most are sold as Christmas Cactus.) Because of hybridizing, the original parentage is unclear, and bloom can be anywhere between October and late winter.

Bloom continues for several weeks. If you choose different varieties, you can extend it over a few months.

PLANTS THRIVE FOR

YEARS WITHOUT FUSS

Christmas cactus are easy to grow and can live for 80 years or more--although 25 years is more typical (eventually plants may succumb to a bacterial infection that lies dormant until triggered by a sudden shock like a change in growing conditions).

When you bring blooming cactus home, set in a cool, bright spot out of direct sun. Tropical cactus shouldn't dry out completely; water when top 1/2 to 1 inch of soil is dry.

If bud drop occurs on recently purchased plants, it's usually caused by poor growing conditions at the store, combined with the shock of moving. Buy only plants that appear to be well cared for (adequately watered and displayed in bright light, not in sleeves or displayed in artificial light for a long time).

When flowering is over, set the cactus outdoors if you live in a frost-free climate, in a protected area if light frosts are possible. Provide filtered sun. Too much sun burns leaves; low light causes weak growth. Watch out for snails.

Otherwise, keep them indoors until weather warms. Cactus can stay indoors all year, but getting them to rebloom may be more difficult.

Prune plants after flowering or in midsummer to strengthen the base, develop good branching, and prevent legginess. Remove one or two leaf segments by holding leaves between joints and twisting. Save them for new plants (patented plants can't be propagated). For a cascading plant, don't prune.

Starting in spring, feed monthly with a complete liquid fertilizer.

TO ENSURE REBLOOM

To slow growth and encourage flowering, cut back on watering in late September or early October. Water only enough to avoid severe wilt until a few pinpoint-size buds appear (in two to four weeks), then water normally.

Flower bud initiation is determined by low nighttime temperatures (55[degree] to 60[degree]) and 12-hour or shorter days. Whether plants are grown indoors or out, make sure they get no artificial light starting in late September or October; even a porch light or quick flick of a light switch can prevent flowering. After buds form, light won't affect them.

Indoors, set plants in a cool room that's dark after 6 p.m. (or over a night with an opaque container).

PROPAGATING PLANTS

If flowers are pollinated, many types of Christmas cactus will form large (1/2-inch), decorative pink seed pods. (However, some have been bred to be sterile.)

With a small brush, transfer pollen from the anthers of one flower to the pistil (at center) of another. When flowers fade, remove petals (not the pod) carefully. Pods color up in several months.

To harvest seed out of mature (bright pink) pods, snip the narrow end, squeeze puplp into a little sand in your palm, and rub around the separate seeds (seeds should be chocolate brown to black). Sprinkle onto moist soil mix (1 part perlite to 3 parts peat) in small pots. Keep shaded and moist. Seeds germinate in about a week.

To plant prunings, dip in rooting hormone, then insert deep enough into barely moist soil moix to be stable. Rooting takes about two weeks.

WHERE TO GET PLANTS

If you can't find newer colors at your local nursery or florist, order from Rainbow Gardens Nursery, 1444 E. Taylor St., Vista, Calif. 92084; (619) 758-4290. Color catalog costs $2.
COPYRIGHT 1991 Sunset Publishing Corp.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1991 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:flowering plants for the Christmas holiday
Publication:Sunset
Date:Dec 1, 1991
Words:713
Previous Article:December in your garden.
Next Article:It's real. This Christmas tree is a camellia.
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