How the Christmas Cactus Came to Be

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Christmas cactus (Schlumbergera spp.). Source: worldofsucculents.com

An Original Story by the Laidback Gardener

20181225C LHOnce upon a time there was a little boy named Paolo who lived alone with his mother, Silvia, in a small village in southern Brazil. They lived poorly, but adequately from the money she made as a washerwoman. It was hard, monotonous work, but she did it without complaint, because she was a proud woman.

One morning, however, the accumulated fatigue was too much for Silvia and she fell ill with a fever. Paola found her lying in bed, unable to get up. In spite of being only seven years old, he was a very industrious little boy and he undertook not only to look after his sick mother, but also to find something to support the little family. However, he was too small to work washing clothes. The only work he could find was as a wood bundler: collecting branches for kindling. This he did day in, day out, selling his bundles to other villagers for a few coins. He earned scarcely enough money to buy gruel, the only food he could afford.

Discouraged and undernourished, Silvia failed to get over her fever and kept to her bed while Paolo was doing everything he could to help his mother regain her health. As Easter approached, he began to look for a gift to make her feel better. He had no money to spend, but felt sure he could make something for her.

20181225D Niccokuntzman, openclipart.org .jpgIt just so happens that there was a mountain near the village where cactus of all kinds grew: small and round or tall and cylindrical, they were always majestic. Paolo decided to bring one back to his mother, and chose a candelabra cactus with two strong arms that made it look like a sculpture. He put it in an old pot he cleaned up and presented it to his mother. Seeing the beautiful cactus, his mother smiled for the first time in months. Paolo hoped this was a sign she was recovering, but his mother remained ill.

20181225E LH.jpgOn Mother’s Day, he returned to the mountain and brought back a small ball cactus covered with silver spines. Again his mother smiled and this time managed to lift her head for a few minutes, but soon after sank back into the torment of her fever.

20181225F LH.zazzle.com & amazon.com.jpgFor the Feast of João Batista, the patron saint of the village, Paolo went up the mountain again and found another cactus for his mother, this time an arching cactus called Queen of the night with huge flower buds. Arriving home in the evening, the buds opened magically, revealing beautiful white flowers, so fragrant that their perfume filled the entire hut. Under this plant’s influence, Silvia couldn’t help but feel much better and managed to sit up. In fact, she sat with her son all night, admiring the beautiful scented flowers. The next morning, however, the flowers faded as quickly as they had opened and Silvia sank back into her fever.

20181225GOn Christmas Eve, as his mother’s illness approached the threshold of its second year, Paolo returned to the mountain in search of a new cactus to cheer his mother up. Unfortunately, he could find only one puny little cactus puny with flattened segments. In fact, it was pretty much the ugliest plant he had ever seen. Discouraged, Paolo began to cry and cry and cry. In fact, he cried so hard that drops of blood dripped from his eyes, accumulating on the stems of the little cactus.

Then occurred such a miracle as can only happen on Christmas Eve: the drops of blood turned into flower buds. When Paolo wiped away his last tear and looked again at the little cactus, he saw that he was far from being puny and unattractive, but covered with arching red flowers.

20181225H LH.jpgSurprised and excited, Paolo potted up the little cactus and brought it to his mother, placing it by her side in the hut. At the stroke of midnight, he woke his mother who, surprised by the beauty of her son’s gift, could not only sit up in bed, but was even able to stand.

Paolo feared that the flowers would again last only one night, like that of the Queen of the night, but the next day the little cactus was still in bloom, and, again, his mother got up to better enjoy it and this time, was able to take her first step in months. Thus, every day, under the influence of the magnificent flowers of the little cactus, she became stronger and stronger and by the time the last flower faded several weeks later, she had fully recovered and was able to resume her work. With the joint income of Silvia as a washerwoman and Paolo, who had discovered people were willing to pay for the cactus cuttings he prepared, they could now eat much more heartily and lived on in good health. In fact, thanks to his cactus nursery and his hard work, Paolo grew up to become the richest man in the village and lived a long and fulfilling life.

Since that day, the plain little cactus Paolo had cried so hard over has become world famous as the Christmas cactus, each year adorned with flower buds in the form of drops of blood and beautiful arching flowers that brighten homes around the world for the Christmas season.

Illustrations: laidbackgardener.blog, Niccokuntzman, openclipart.org, zazzle.com & amazon.com

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50 Houseplants That Don’t Mind Dry Air

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Most houseplants just don’t do well in desert-dry air! Source: pexels.com

Dry air is a major problem for houseplants in the winter… and indeed, any indoor plant (seedlings, cuttings, etc.). When the atmospheric humidity is less than 40%, certainly common enough in many homes, plants try hard to compensate by transpiring more heavily, that is, by releasing water to the air through their stomata (breathing pores). The drier the air, the more they transpire, and that can lead to their tissues losing water more rapidly than their roots can replace it. This can result in all sorts of symptoms of stress: wilting, flower buds turning brown, leaves curling under, brown leaf tips, even the death of the plant.

And if that weren’t enough, leaves stressed by dry air are also more subject to pest damage (red spider mites, whiteflies, thrips, etc.)

Some Plants Can Cope

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Plants with thick, waxy leaves cope better with dry air than those with thin ones. Source: davisla.wordpress.com.

That said, many plants, especially those native to arid climates or ones where they are exposed to long periods of drought, have developed ways of compensating for dry air. Cacti and succulents are usually very resistant to dry air and so are some epiphytic plants, like hoyas.

Some plants resist dry air by producing leaves with fewer stomata than normal, thus reducing water loss. Many have abandoned leaves altogether and breathe through their green stems (many cacti, for example). Others keep their stomata closed during the day, when the sun is hottest and water loss is greatest, breathing only a night. (This is called Crassulacean acid metabolism or CAM.) In other words, they essentially hold their breath 12 hours a day! Also, plants resistant to dry air often have extra-thick leaves or leaves coated with wax, powder or hair, all of which reduce evaporation.

Plants That Don’t Mind Dry Air

What follows are a few houseplants that don’t really mind it if the air in your home is on the dry side. Not that they will suffer if you increase the humidity to levels more acceptable to plants in general (most plants prefer a relative humidity of 50% or above) and that indeed is good for your health too, but if improving the atmospheric humidity something you just can’t do, at least these plants will pull through without a complaint!

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Aeonium arboreum ‘Atropurpureum’: one example of a plant that tolerates dry air. Source, Bernard Dupont, Wikimedia Commons

  1. Aeonium spp. (tree houseleek)
  2. Agave spp. (century plant)
  3. Aglaonema spp. (Chinese evergreen)
  4. Aloe spp. (aloe)
  5. Ananas comosus (pineapple plant)
  6. Aspidistra elatior (cast iron plant)
  7. Beaucarnea recurvata (ponytail palm)
  8. Cephalocereus senilis (old man cactus)
  9. Cereus peruvianus (Peruvian apple cactus)
  10. Ceropegia woodii (rosary vine)
  11. Clivia miniata (clivia)
  12. Crassula ovata (jade plant)
  13. Crassula spp. (crassula)
  14. Cryptanthus spp. (earth star)

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    The thick leaves of the dieffenbachia can generally cope quite well with drier air, but you can see just a bit of damage at the tip of this one. Source: Forest & Kim Starr, Wikimedia Commons

  15. Dieffenbachia spp. (dumbcane)
  16. Echeveria spp. (echeveria)
  17. Echinocactus grusonii (golden ball cactus)
  18. Epipremnum aureum (pothos, devil’s ivy)
  19. × Epicactus (orchid cactus)
  20. Euphorbia lactea (candelabra spurge)
  21. Euphorbia milii (crown of thorns)
  22. Euphorbia tirucalli (pencil cactus)
  23. Ficus elastica (rubber tree)
  24. Ficus lyrata (fiddle leaf fig)
  25. Gasteria spp. (ox tongue)
  26. Gymnocalycium mihanovichii friedrichii ‘Hibotan’ (red ball cactus)
  27. Haworthia spp. (zebra plant)
  28. Hippeastrum cvs (amaryllis)
  29. Hoya carnosa (wax plant)
  30. Kalanchoe (kalanchoe, panda plant)
  31. Ledebouria socialis (silver squill)

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    Few plants tolerate dry air as well as living stones (Lithops). Source: Dysmorodrepanis, Wikimedia Commons

  32. Lithops spp. (living stone)
  33. Mammillaria spp. (pincushion cactus)
  34. Opuntia spp. (bunny ears)
  35. Pachypodium lamerei (Madagascar palm)
  36. Pelargonium graveolens (rose-scented geranium)
  37. Pelargonium × hortorum (zonal pelargonium, zonal geranium)
  38. Peperomia obtusifolia, P. clusiifolia (baby rubber plant)
  39. Philodendron hederaceum oxycardium (heartleaf philodendron)
  40. Rhipsalis spp. (mistletoe cactus)
  41. Sansevieria trifasciata (snake plant)
  42. Schlumbergera (Christmas cactus)
  43. Sedum spp. (sedum, donkey’s tail)

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    The nearly round leaves of Senecio rowleyanus are designed to reduce evapotranspiration. Source: Forest & Kim Starr, flickr

  44. Senecio rowleyanus (string-of-pearls)
  45. Senecio serpens (blue chalksticks)
  46. Stapelia spp. (carrion flower)
  47. Streltizia reginae (bird of paradise)
  48. Syngonium spp. (arrowhead vine)
  49. Yucca elephantipes (spineless yucca)
  50. Zamioculcas zamiifolia (zeezee plant)20171227A pexels.com

Christmas Plants Around the World

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Christmas plants differ according to region. Source; laidbackgardener.blog

The most popular Christmas plant in North America is certainly the poinsettia (Euphorbia pulcherrima). There is scarcely a store that doesn’t sell them or a home that isn’t decorated with one. But there are other Christmas plants, including Christmas cactus (Schlumbergera spp.), Christmas kalanchoe (Kalanchoe blossfeldiana), amaryllis (Hippeastrum spp.), Christmas pepper (Capsicum annuum), Jerusalem cherry (Solanum pseudocapsicum), frosted fern (Selaginella martensii ‘Frosty’), Norfolk island pine (Araucaria heterophylla) and, more recently, wintergreen (Gaultheria procumbens).

Christmas trees are popular all over North America, too. Fir trees (Abies spp.) are the biggest sellers, but Douglas firs (Pseudotsuga menziesii), spruces (Picea spp.) and pines (Pinus spp.) are widely used.

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Christmas fern (Polystichum acrostichoides). Source: Krzysztof Ziarnek, Kenraiz

The Christmas fern (Polystichum acrostichoides) was once commonly used in Christmas wreathes, garlands and centerpieces in Eastern North America, as it has evergreen fronds that last all winter and are thus available at Christmastime, but its star has waned considerably. It’s just too easy to find longer-lasting artificial or preserved foliage for such use these days. The Christmas fern still makes a great garden plant for shady spots and is hardy to zone 3.

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Winterberry (Ilex verticillata Berry Poppins®). Source: Proven Winners

The branches of winterberry (Ilex verticillata) have fared better over time and are still widely used. This deciduous holly, native to eastern North America, is leafless at Christmas, but its branches are covered with bright red berries that create great swaths of color in Christmas arrangements. You can grow them yourself (the shrub is hardy to zone 3 and you will need to include at least one male plant in your planting to pollinate the berry-bearing females), but you can also buy branches in florist shops … including fake ones, unfortunately.

That covers most of the plants associated with Christmas in North America, but Christmas plants differ around the world. Let’s take a look at what’s going on elsewhere.

Europe

In general, the plants featured in the first paragraph—poinsettias, Christmas cactus, Christmas kalanchoe, etc.—are also popular in Europe, although the poinsettia, even though it is not rare per se, is not as popular as on this side of the Atlantic. But there are other plants associated with Christmas (and New Year’s Day) that are more specific to Europe.

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Holly (Ilex aquifolium): more popular in Europe than in North America. Source: AnemoneProjectors, Wikiimedia Commons

For example, holly (Ilex aquifolium) is a European shrub or tree with spiny-edged, shiny, leathery, evergreen leaves and red berries and is grown in many Old World gardens. True enough, holly is available on a limited basis in North America too (although are mostly seem either on Christmas cards or as sprigs of plastic leaves), but nothing to the extent to which it is used in Europe, where, in some countries, sprigs of holly are found on nearly every window ledge and doorway. This tradition has come to be seen as a sign of welcome, but is in fact based a centuries-old belief that putting holly on all possible entranceways would prevent evil spirits from invading the home.

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Mistletoe is no longer as common as it once was. Source: mistletoematters.wordpress.com

Kissing under the mistletoe during the Christmas season is a very old European tradition and can be traced back to the time of the Druids, who laid down arms and exchanged greetings under the mistletoe, considered to be a very sacred plant. Mistletoe is a parasitic plant that grows on tree branches, counting on sap it absorbs from its host for its survival. European mistletoe (Viscum album)—with its translucent round white berries—is the original variety to kiss under.

The tradition of kissing under the mistletoe was brought over to the New World and thrived for awhile, but now appears to be dying out. Certainly mistletoe is now only available very locally in North America: I haven’t seen a sprig of it in years! It’s still widely used in Europe during the holiday season.

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English ivy (Hedera helix) used in a wreath. Source: bcinvasives.ca

English ivy (Hedera helix) is a traditional Christmas plant in Europe, widely used in holiday garlands and wreaths. Think of the carol The Holly and the Ivy, for example. And why not, since this evergreen climber grows abundantly everywhere on that continent and so is readily available! The tradition of using ivy as a Christmas decoration never caught on in North America, probably because ivy is neither native nor widely grown, though it has escaped from culture to become abundant in a few areas. Harvesting ivy for Christmas decorations is something that could be encouraged as a control measure in areas (mostly on the US West Coast) where ivy is proving to be a pernicious weed.

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The Christmas rose (Helleborus niger) is a stunning early bloomer… but only blooms at Christmas in mild climates. Source: 4028mdk09, Wikimedia Commons

The Christmas rose (Helleborus niger) is not a rose (Rosa spp.) at all, of course, but a perennial. It’s a traditional Christmas plant in southeastern Europe, notably in areas where Orthodox Church is the common religion. Orthodox Christmas takes place about two weeks later than in Western rites, around January 7. And this very early perennial is usually in bloom by then. Although mainly used in flower beds or naturalized in woodlands, it’s also sold as a gift plant at that season.

Elsewhere in Europe and pretty much everywhere in North America, this plant flowers too late to be a Christmas plant. Where I live, it isn’t even in bloom at Easter … it’s more like a Mother’s Day plant!

In Europe, the tradition of Christmas trees is well established and often spruce or pine, or even a juniper or other conifer, are used, depending on what is available locally.

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The Yule log tradition has trouble surviving in modern homes, as so many no longer have a functioning fireplace. Source: maeclair.net

The tradition of the Yule log has largely died out in Britain and Central Europe as it has in North America, but in many parts of Europe, notably in Scandanavia and Eastern Europe, it remains deeply entrenched. A Yule log is a very large hardwood log, the idea being to light it on Christmas Eve and have it burn through the night and Christmas Day. In the Balkans, the Yule log is called a badnjak (or budnik, according to the local language) and it is usually an oak, a symbol of longevity. Those who do not have a fireplace to burn a log in often decorate their apartment with twigs of oak.

In France, Belgium and Switzerland, the Yule log (bûche de Noël) has morphed into a log-shaped cake, traditionally served at Christmas … you don’t need a fireplace for that!

Mediterranean and Middle East

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A wreath decorated with pomegranates (Punica granatum). Source: www.clubbotanic.com

The main Christmas plant in this region is the pomegranate (Punica granatum): a perfect choice, as it matures at just the right time of year. Doors, fireplaces, tables, etc. are decorated with pomegranate fruits, both fresh and artificial.

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Butcher’s broom (Ruscus aculeatus). Source: Dominicus Johannes Bergsma, Wikimedia Commons

Two other plants often used in Christmas decorations are the shrubs butcher’s broom (Ruscus aculeatus) and firethorn (Pyracantha spp.), both bearing evergreen foliage and red berries.

In Israel, olive branches (Olea europaea) are offered at Christmas to friends as a symbol of peace.

Mexico

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Flower market full of poinsettias (Euphorbia pulcherrima) in Mexico just before Christmas. Source: casita-colibri.blog

The poinsettia (Euphorbia pulcherrima) is native to Mexico and is popular in there, where it’s known as flor de Nochebuena (Christmas Eve flower). Butcher’s broom and firethorn, brought over from Spain, are also popular, as well as are several local plants that bloom at Christmas.

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Traditional Mexican Christmas punch with floating manzanitas (Crataegus mexicana). Source: http://www.goya.com

Manzanita, also called tejocote or manzanilla (Crataegus mexicana), a large-berried hawthorn, is another plant traditionally used as a Christmas decoration in many parts of Mexico and Central America. The orange fruits may be threaded onto a garland and are also used to make Christmas punch.

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Display of radishes on the Noche de Los Rábanos. Source: AlejandroLinaresGarcia, Wikimedia Commons

One of Mexico’s most curious Christmas traditions, however, is the Night of the Radishes (Noche de Los Rábanos), celebrated in the region of Oaxaca on December 23rd. In it, radishes are carved and arranged into some very impressive displays.

South America

Since most of this continent lies south of the equator, the seasons are inverted and Christmas takes place in summer, not winter. That means traditional Christmas plants of the Northern Hemisphere bloom six months too late for Christmas. As a result, the poinsettia is called “Easter flower” (flor de pascua) in many South American countries, because it blooms at Easter, while our Christmas cactus (Schlumbergera) is called “flor de maio” (May flower) in its country of origin, Brazil. Yet there is a Christmas cactus in these countries. The plant we call Easter cactus (Hatiora gaertneri, formerly Rhipsalidopsis gaertneri) in the North is the “cactus de Navidad” and blooms at Christmas in much of South America.

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Colored berries of the Brazilian peppertree (Schinus terebinthifolius). Source: Javier Alejandro, flickr.

South Americans tend to use native plants as cut flowers or holiday plants at the Christmas season. Branches of the Brazilian peppertree (Schinus terebinthifolius) and its cousin, Peruvian peppertree (S. mollis), known in the north for the pink peppercorns they produce, are often used to decorate churches and houses during the holiday season, as they are loaded with small red berries at that time of year.

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Venezuelan Christmas orchid (Cattleya percivaliana). Source: QuazDelaCruz, Wikimedia Commons

Venezuela has its own Christmas orchid that blooms for the holidays: Cattleya perciviliana. Elsewhere in South America, the usual “orquídea de navidad” is Angraecum sesquipedale, actually native to Madagascar, but widely grown for its large white star-shaped flowers. It’s also called estrella of Belén (star of Bethlehem), but then, so are many other white, star-shaped flowers, including bulbs of the genus Ornithogalum.

In Paraguay, house and Christmas displays are often decorated with “flores de coco,” the long, fragrant inflorescences of a local palm tree, the coyol (Acrocomia aculeata). This pre-Christian tradition comes from the indigenous Guarani people.

Asia

In general, the concept of Christmas is relatively new to this continent and the celebration is mostly a commercial one of American inspiration, so there are often no traditional plants associated with the holiday, at least not long-standing ones. Most are the same Christmas plants seen in North America (poinsettias, Christmas cacti, etc.). Christmas trees, almost nonexistent only 30 years ago, for example, are now seen everywhere, although more often in shopping centers than in private homes. Usually artificial trees are used.

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Heavenly bamboo (Nandina domestica). Source: http://www.mailordertrees.co.uk

The Christian population in Japan is more firmly established than most in Asia and has solidly adopted the tradition of the Christmas tree, usually a real fir or spruce tree. Heavenly bamboo, Nandina domestica, which is not a bamboo at all, but a shrub, is the second-best-known Christmas plant, with its scarlet fruits and red winter leaves. Chrysanthemums (Chrysanthemum morifolium), popular in all seasons in Japan, are widely used at Christmas too.

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Apples stamped with seasonal messages are common Christmas Eve gifts in China. Source: gbtimes.com

In China, an apple wrapped in colored paper or stamped with an appropriate seasonal message is often offered as a gift on Christmas Eve because the word “Christmas Eve,” translated as “night of peace” (Ping’an Ye) in Mandarin, sounds like the word apple (píngguǒ).

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Christmas palm (Adonidia merrillii). Source: palmpedia.ne

In the tropical regions of Asia, the Christmas palm (Adonidia merrillii), better known by its old name, Veitchia merrillii, is widely grown. With its stocky trunk and relatively short fronds, it looks like a dwarf royal palm … and bears bright red fruit at Christmas. Originally from the Philippines and Malaysia, this palm is now grown throughout the tropics.

Finally, in India, the golden Monterey cypress (Cupressus macrocarpa ‘Goldcrest’) is growing in popularity as a Christmas tree, but otherwise, Christmas is little celebrated in India.

Africa

The traditions of using Christmas plants are more firmly established in South Africa than in the center and north of the continent, brought to this region by European settlers (notably the Dutch and English).

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To Northeners, hortensias (Hydrangea macrophylla) just don’t say Christmas, but it warms the cockles of the heart of South Africans. Source: pxhere

Again, though, with the seasons being inverted, the South African Christmas plants are very different from those in the Northern Hemisphere. Notably, the hortensia (Hydrangea macrophylla), well-known in the North for its summer bloom, is called “Christmas flower” and is by far the most popular Christmas plant!

On the other hand, poinsettias are catching on as well. They have to be specially prepared in order to bloom at Christmas rather than in May, which is when they’d bloom if left on their own. Local nurserymen manage to do this by covering their production greenhouses with black cloth after 4 pm to ensure the short days necessary to stimulate bloom.

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Christmas bells (Sandersonia aurantiaca) are bulbs native to South Africa. Source: http://www.alanjolliffe.com

Various native plants also serve as Christmas plants, such as Christmas bush (Pavetta spp.), Christmas bells (Sandersonia aurantiaca) and Christmas berry (Chironia baccifera). Several plants imported from Australia, which has a similar climate, are also appreciated for their winter bloom. You’ll read more about those below. Africans also celebrate Christmas with many plants that are for us just typical summer flowers, like daisies, roses and zinnias.

Christmas trees are very popular in South Africa, but they use as subjects conifers adapted to local conditions, such as cypress (Cupressus spp., including C. macrocarpa), Japanese cedar (Cryptomeria japonica) and various pines (Pinus spp., including P. radiata).

Australia

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The Norfolk Island pine (Araucaria heterophylla) is Australia’s favorite Christmas tree, AlfredSin, flickr

In Australia, the traditional Christmas tree is the native Norfolk Island pine (Araucaria heterophylla). Grown in mostly as a houseplant in the northern hemisphere, where it rarely exceeds 5 feet (1.5 m) in height, in Australia, it can eventually reach up to 250 feet (65 m) in height, about 20 floors! Other mild-climate conifers from various parts of the world are also used as Christmas trees, including various pines.

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The Australian Christmas tree (Nuytsia floribunda). Source:  JarrahTree, Wikimedia Commons

And Australians have their own Ozzie Christmas tree, Nuytsia floribunda … but it’s not a conifer, but rather a broad-leaved tree. Moreover, it’s a parasitic tree (or rather hemiparasitic tree, since it does carry out its own photosynthesis) that steals most of its water and minerals from nearby plants! The Australian Christmas tree produces frothy spikes of orange-yellow flowers just in time for the holidays.

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One of many Christmas bushes in Australia: Ceratopetalum gummiferum. Source: gdaymateowyagoin, flickr

To add to this, each Australian state seems to have its own “Christmas bush,” always a shrub that produces masses of either flowers or colorful fruits at the right season, including Correa spp., Chromolaena odorata, Ceratopetalum gummiferum and Prosanthera laisanthos. Also, there are many bulbs that bloom at Christmas, including various species of Blandfordia, called “Christmas bells.” And Australia also has its own Christmas orchid: Calanthe triplicata, native to the north of the country

New Zealand

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New Zealand Christmas tree (Meterosideros excelsa). Source: Ed323, Wikimedia Commons

Mention Christmas tree to any New Zealander and they’ll immediately think of Meterosideros excelsa, a rounded broadleaf tree with feathery red flowers at Christmas. It’s called the New Zealand Christmas tree or pōhutukawa. And an introduced bulb from South America (Alstroemeria psittacina), with green-tipped red tubular flowers, has “gone native” and is well-known by locals as New Zealand Christmas bells.


So, wherever you travel around the world, there are always interesting Christmas plants to discover!

If you know of other Christmas plants, do not hesitate to let me know about them at laidbackgardener@gmail.com.20171224A HC.jpg

Shriveled “Leaves” Mean Your Christmas Cactus is In Trouble

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A healthy, blooming Thanksgiving cactus (Schlumbergera truncata). Source: Peter coxhead, W

In general, home gardeners do pretty well with Christmas cactus, both the real thing (Schlumbergera x buckleyi) and its close relative, Thanksgiving cactus (S. truncata), which I’ll call “seasonal cacti” in this article. (Read When your Christmas Cactus Blooms Too Early to know how to distinguish between the two.) In many homes, they come to bloom twice a year, in November/December and again in February/March. And they live for decades with only minimal care. But sometimes you start to notice that all isn’t right. The “leaves” (stem segments) go from shiny, green and plump to dull, thin, shriveled, soft and sometimes even reddish. What’s going on?

Not a Leaf in Sight

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The flat growths on seasonal cactus are stems, not leaves. Source: Julie Weisenhorn. University of Minnesota.

Banish the word “leaf” from your vocabulary when thinking about seasonal cactus. They have no leaves at all or rather, no longer do. Way back when they sprouted as seedlings, and that can be 40 or more years ago, they did bear exactly two cotyledons (seed leaves), but ever since, they’ve been getting along strictly using their stems. The flattened green stem segments link together like a chain, eventually forming an arching, hanging plant and even later, turning brown and woody (at least the very oldest stems do). Being green, stem segments carry out photosynthesis like a leaf would and keep the plant fueled in energy. But still, stem segments just aren’t leaves.

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Limp, shriveled segments show that this Christmas cactus is in serious trouble. Thughorse, garden.org

When stems become soft and shriveled, it’s essentially because they are thirsty: not enough moisture is reaching them. Logic would seem to suggest they simply need to be watered more, but that’s not necessarily the right thing to do.

Lack of Water or Too Much?

There are two main reasons why moisture fails to reach the stems, especially the last segments. Either the soil is too dry or the roots are damaged … and the latter can actually be caused by too much water!

If the Soil Is Too Dry

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Seasonal cacti will often keep blooming even when they’re suffering from severe root damage. Source: zensero, home-design

If the soil is too dry, that’s easy enough to see or, at least, to feel. Touch it. Your fingers will easily feel the dryness. So, if dry soil is causing the shriveled stems, yes, watering is the obvious solution. Not just a light watering, but a deep, thorough watering, so that the whole root ball is thoroughly moistened.

Sometimes, when potting soil is very, very dry, it repels water, so when you water the plant, moisture no longer penetrates the soil, but runs off immediately into the saucer below. This is especially common in hanging baskets, which we tend to water more lightly than we should, fearing any surplus water will pour out of the saucer onto the floor. As a result, the poor plant never gets enough moisture and is constantly drought-stressed.

If that’s your diagnosis, don’t just water the plant, soak the root ball. Plunge the pot into a sink or pail water of tepid water and let it soak for 10 to 15 minutes. Then let it drain thoroughly. Once rehydrated, the soil will become water-receptive again and you can water normally in the future … unless you allow it to dry out too once again.

How Often Should I Water a Seasonal Cactus?

 

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Water your seasonal cactus when the soil is dry to the touch. Source: homedepot.com

Seasonal cacti are not desert plants and don’t need to be kept dry like desert cacti. Although quite forgiving of irregular care, they do prefer “even moisture” throughout the year. Just follow the golden rule of watering: water deeply, enough to moisten the entire root ball, then allow the soil to dry before watering again. It works every time!

When Soil Remains Wet

If your plant shows shriveled stems, but the soil is still moist to the touch, it’s obvious the problem is not related to underwatering. The situation is, in fact, much more serious. This occurs when the roots are dead or dying!

There are many reasons why the roots can be in such bad shape. Here are the two main ones.

  • Soil kept too moist. If the potting mix is constantly wet, oxygen can’t reach the roots which, unable to breathe, start to die. Then root rot sets in. This is a disease caused by various pathogens—Pythium, Phytophthora, Rhizoctonia, Fusarium, etc.—whose spores lie dormant in most soils, ready to spring into action whenever root cells start to suffer. The disease then spreads from the dying roots to living ones, killing them in turn. Obviously, without roots or with fewer roots, the plant can no longer correctly hydrate itself, even if the soil is soaking in moisture, and its stems begin to shrivel. It reminds me of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner: “water, water everywhere, nor any drop to drink!”
  • Mineral salt buildup. Over time, usually over several to many years, salts accumulate in any houseplant’s potting soil. They’re present in small quantities in the water you apply and in even greater quantities in fertilizer. When they increase too much, there comes a point where the soil contains more salts than do the roots. Water will then flow from the plant into the surrounding soil to dilute the concentration (this is called osmosis) rather than from the soil into the plant. As a result, the roots lack water and start to die. Often, the accumulation of salts in the soil is accompanied by a whitish or yellowish crust on the rim of the pot or even on the stem of the plant. Epiphytic plants such as seasonal cactus are especially susceptible to mineral salt damage.

Change the Soil to Save Your Plants

If you suspect that mineral salt buildup is causing the problem, the easiest solution is to repot.

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Repotting will help this shriveled Christmas cactus recuperate. Source: Zanes Wildflora

Unpot the plant and remove as much of the old soil as you can. If the roots are rotten (they’ll smell like rotten potatoes), prune them off. Prune out any rotting stems as well. Now repot into a clean pot (with drainage holes, of course). Note it need not be a larger pot. In fact, if the plant has lost roots, it’s often best to repot it into a somewhat smaller one. Any potting mix that drains well (houseplant soil, cactus soil, orchid mix, etc.) will be suitable.

Water well to moisten the soil initially, then modestly for the coming months, only when the soil is dry to the touch. Usually, the plant will readily produce new roots when given fresh potting soil and its health will begin to improve. Still, you have to be patient: it may take several months before you see a clear improvement.

Take a Few Cuttings

Also, whenever a seasonal cactus is looking a bit off, it’s always wise to take cuttings in case you fail to revive the original plant.

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Take backup cuttings of wilting seasonal cacti. Source: laventanadejaviruli.blogspot.ca

For best results, choose stems with at least three segments (four or five would be even better). To remove them, twist the stems rather than cut them: they will separate quite naturally at the base of a segment.

Insert the cuttings into a small pot of slightly moist potting soil, completely covering the lower segment in mix. Keep the mix slightly moist until new growth appears and that can take several months.

Backup Plants

One of the reasons I suggest combining taking cuttings together with any other rescue method for a declining seasonal cactus is that sometimes very old specimens don’t respond well to repotting, even when you’re doing it to save their life. They seem stuck on their old ways and prefer to die slowly rather than accept a change for the better … like some older humans, by the way. The cuttings thus become your “backups.”

Good luck saving your Christmas and Thanksgiving cacti!20171213A Thughorse, garden.org

Hand-me-down Houseplants

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20160120AWhen you visit any garden center or even one of those big box stores, there is always a houseplant section, but, most discouragingly, they all sell essentially the same plants. However when you visit people’s homes, you’ll often see houseplants that are never (or hardly ever) offered in local garden centers. If you ask about them, you’ll likely to hear a long and fascinating story, for many of these commercially unavailable houseplants have been handed down in the same family for generations, came from a cutting offered by an old friend or were picked up in a flea market or at a plant exchange.

Most of these hand-me-down plants used to be grown commercially, but disappeared from the market ages ago. Why? My theory is that, because they are practically unkillable and they are already found in so many homes, they were no longer marketable. Either that, or plant nurseries have simply so totally forgotten about them that they don’t even know they exist. Ask around the next time you’re in a nursery and you’ll see. These plants are commercially extinct.

Ask whether anyone has one at your local horticultural society meeting, however, and it’s an entirely different story: hands will fly up! These plants are all immensely shareable and therefore you’ll soon find inundated in cuttings and divisions.

A Definition

For me, for a houseplant to be a true hand-me-down, it has to have been around for a long time: at least 30 years. And it should be absent from regular garden centers. That’s why I automatically eliminate the spider plant (Chlorophytum comosum ‘Vittata’) from the list, even though yours may actually be a hand-me-down. There is no real sense of saving it for further generations, as it is still widely available from just about every plant merchant. The same goes for the famous heartleaf philodendron (Philodendron hederaceum, generally known by its former name, P. scandens oxycardium). It was introduced in 1936 through the Woolworth store chain and, while it may be that you think the specimen you inherited from your great aunt Elise is at least 70 years old, it’s also quite likely she bought it in 2002, so widely is this plant still available. And the same goes for the various dracaenas (Dracaena spp.), pothos (Epipremnum aureum), rubber trees (Ficus elastica), jades (Crassula argentea), wax plants (Hoya carnosa), clivias (Clivia miniata), dieffenbachias (Dieffenbachia spp.) and so many others. Yes, possibly you can trace your plant back as far as Noah’s Ark, but if it is still commonly sold, it is not of any great historical value.

A Few Hand-me-down Plants

What follows are examples of houseplants that truly have been passed from one generation to another for a long time and are almost never offered commercially any more, at least that is outside of mail order nurseries specializing in ususual houseplants. When you have one of these plants, you almost have a moral obligation not only to keep it going, but to ensure its continued survival by sharing it with others.

Three Begonias with a Long History

Let’s start with begonias, as so many of them fall into the hand-me-down plant category.

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Begonia x erythrophylla

The beefsteak begonia (Begonia x erythrophylla) is among the first hybrid begonias ever produced, introduced in Germany in 1845. With its shiny, waxy, rounded leaves of a delicious red wine color, its pink flowers during the winter (when you need flowers the most!) and its somewhat pendant habit due to creeping rhizomes that come to hang down outside of the pot, it makes an excellent choice for hanging basket.

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Begonia x ricinifolia ‘Immense’

Begonia ‘Immense’ (B. x ricinifolia ‘Immense’) is certainly aptly named. With its large green somewhat asymmetrical star-shaped leaves that can measure up to 3 feet (90 cm) in diameter, this 1847 hybrid stands out from the crowd. Equally curious are the whorls of hairy red scales that swirl around the petiole (leaf stem). It produces a thick creeping rhizome and blooms in the winter, producing clusters of small pale pink flowers.

These first two begonias can be propagated by rhizome cuttings, but also by leaf cuttings and even leaf section cuttings, making sharing them extra easy.

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Begonia ‘Lucerna’

The original angel wing begonia (Begonia ‘Lucerna’ [‘Corallina Lucerna’]) was hybridized in Switzerland in 1892 and is still widely distributed… at least non commercially. With its upright stem, its wing shaped leaves prettily spotted with silver and its drooping bright pink flowers in summer, it doesn’t look much like its cousins. This begonia is propagated by stem cuttings.

There are more hand-me-down begonias out there: begonias are truly a group of plants with staying power!

Walking Iris

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Neomarica northiana

The walking iris (Neomarica northiana) is also called the apostle plant, as it is said that each segment must have 12 leaves before it will flower. It was introduced in the 1920s. It is indeed an iris relative and certainly looks the part, with its sword-shaped leaves and its short-lived blue and white flowers with the usual iris standards and falls. The flowers seem to emerge directly from a leaf that continues to grow in length after the blooms stop. Eventually a baby plant forms near the end of the stem, pulling the stem downward and making it a very curious hanging plant. I regularly see this plant in people’s homes, but almost never in garden centers.

Queen’s Tears

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Billbergia nutans

You rarely see this bromeliad (Billbergia nutans), with its tight rosettes of very narrow, almost grasslike leaves growing in dense clumps, other than in botanical gardens… and private homes. In the 1930s, however, it was a very popular Christmas plant because it blooms naturally at just the right season. And it is a tough-as-nails plant, easily tolerating almost the entire range of indoor growing conditions. It bears pendant stems covered in bright pink bracts while the actual blooms drip down as if they are crying, giving its common name queen’s tears. The flowers are not as colorful as the bracts, being a more mundane green with deep purple margins.

This is a great plant for people who want to try bromeliads, but aren’t patient enough to wait the 3 to 6 years most take to rebloom. Queen’s tears produces a mass of pups and matures rapidly, so there always a few plants in bloom every year just in time for Christmas. The numerous pups also means it can readily be multiplied for exchange purposes.

The True Christmas Cactus

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Schlumbergera x buckleyi, with hanging stems, is the real Christmas cactus.

The true Christmas cactus (Schlumbergera x buckleyi) merits a mention as a hand-me-down plant as it hasn’t been offered in garden centers for half a century. What you’re seeing in bloom at Christmas in garden centers are Thanksgiving cacti (S. truncata) that were specially treated so they would bloom at Christmas. You can learn how to distinguish between the two here.

The true Christmas cactus is not much appreciated in garden centers, as its distinctly hanging stems make it hard to ship (the more upright stems of the Thanksgiving cactus are much easier to manipulate), so it can be hard to find. However, I know lots of people who grow the real thing in their living rooms and have done so in some cases for over 40 years.

Boston Fern

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The real Boston ivy (Nephrolepis exaltata ‘Bostoniensis’)

Including this plant of the list of hand-me-downs is a bit risky because there are so many look-alike ferns on the market, all cultivars deriving from Nephrolepsis exaltata or other Nephrolepis species. However, today’s modern clones are smaller, more compact plants than the true Boston fern, Nephrolepis exaltata ‘Bostoniensis’. This plant becomes quite a monster, from distinctly arching medium green fronds to over 3 feet (1 m) in length, dripping downward like a cascade. It also produces dozens of thin green hairy rhizomes that dangle below the foliage like so much vegetable spaghetti. The original was introduced in 1894 and was the classic plant for the parlor, that room once found in every middleclass home and used solely for receiving distinguished guests… and funerals. You can still finds huge specimens of this fern in private homes, but also in churches and convents. Traditionally it was always placed on a pedestal, but it also looks great as a hanging plant.

Screw Pine

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Pandanus veitchii

Another plant seen in botanical gardens and private homes, but never in garden centers is the screw pine. (Pandanus veitchii). It’s actually a Polynesian tree introduced by Veitch Nurseries in England towards the end of the 1800s. Indoors, it forms a rather large plant with arching linear leaves of a waxy appearance, with small sharp hooks at the margin and on the underside of the leaf. The leaves are striped green and white. Over time the plant produces pretty impressive aerial roots and a profusion of babies emerging from its base and poking out through its foliage. I often see this big plant in people’s windows when I take my nightly constitutional.

Mother of Thousands

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Kalanchoe daigremontiana

This upright succulent plant (Kalanchoe daigremontiana, formerly Bryophytum daigremontianum) bears its name well, as its long, thick triangular leaves are lined in dozens of tiny plantlets… and yes, maybe even thousands! It’s also called Mexican hat plant (even though it is from Madagascar), life plant and alligator plant. The plantlets fall off at the slightest touch and root in neighboring pots. Thus, the plant’s owner always has dozens to offer visitors. Garden centers don’t appreciate its naturally invasive habit (after all, imagine the weeding they’ll need to do as the plantlets start to move into and overtake the other plants in the section!). Although absent from garden centers, it is still commonly grown in many homes. Give this tough-as-nails plant plenty of sun and let it dry between waterings and you’ll find it easy to grow. But you too may come find its weedy habit a bit annoying!

There are several other kalanchoes that produce the same kind of plantlets, but K. daigremontiana is the traditional hand-me-down variety.

Any Others?

Have I missed a few essential hand-me-down houseplants? After all, what is common in one area might not be in another, so that is quite possible. If so, let me know and if I agree with you, I’ll update this blog.

Can’t Find Them?

Yeah, well there’s the rub: by very definition, hand-me-down plants just aren’t commercially available. As mentioned above, ask at your local horticultural society. Also look in flea markets and of course, at plant exchanges. Or visit grandma: she just might have one.

Among the few mail order nurseries that carry some of these plants are Glasshouse Works, Logee’s Greenhouses and Top Tropicals, all in the US. Canadians will need an import permit (from the federal government) and a phytosanitary certificate (supplied by the nursery) in order to import them.

When Your Christmas Cactus Blooms Too Early

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The toothed stems and horizontal blooms say this is not a Christmas cactus, but a Thanksgiving cactus.

Your Christmas cactus is already in bloom well before Christmas? That’s normal… because it’s not a Christmas cactus. Let me explain.

There is indeed a true Christmas cactus, in fact two of them (Schlumbergera russelliana and a nearly identical hybrid S. x buckleyi), and they do bloom towards the middle or end of December. But they’re not popular with greenhouse growers who prefer the earlier blooming Thanksgiving cactus or crab cactus (S. truncata), which, as the name suggests, naturally blooms in November, shortly before the American Thanksgiving.

How to Tell Them Apart

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The true Christmas cactus has pendant flowers and pendant stems with no pointed teeth.

The true Christmas cactus has a distinctly pendent stem, hanging flowers in shades of magenta, and, most obviously, flattened stem segments with smooth, somewhat crenellated edges, never toothed. It is rarely sold in nurseries because its long stems shatter too readily, making it difficult to ship. And, of course, if your plant naturally blooms at Christmas, that’s another good sign it’s probably the true Christmas cactus.

20151115AENThe Thanksgiving cactus has stems that grow upright at first, then arch… and its flowers are borne horizontally rather than hanging limply from the stem tip. Most obviously, though, it has distinct teeth on its segments a bit like crab claws, which is why it is also known as crab cactus. Also, unlike the true Christmas cactus, it comes in a wide range of colors: red, fuchsia, magenta, lavender, pink, white, yellow and even orange. It abundantly found in stores of all sorts in the holiday season, even supermarkets. Under normal circumstances, it will bloom in very late October or in November.

But My Cactus Used to Bloom at Christmas…

Just to confuse people, Thanksgiving cacti are often sold in full bloom at Christmas and you may indeed have purchased yours at that season. But now it blooms in November. Why?

Greenhouse growers have learned that if you grow Thanksgiving cactus cool (which saves on heating for them), they can delay its bloom. And if you can do the same, you can encourage your Thanksgiving cactus to bloom for Christmas. Here’s how:

First, both Thanksgiving cactus and the true Christmas cactus need short days (less than 12 hours of sunlight per day) starting in late September or they won’t bloom at all. So I suggest you put your plants in a spot that receives no artificial light between 6 pm and 5:30 am. I put mine in the guest room – we never turn on the lights there at night – but you can simply place your plants behind other plants or a piece of furniture: you just have to make sure no artificial light reaches them at night.

Next, you have to keep your Thanksgiving cactus cool, below 60˚F (15˚C) day and night until just before Christmas. This will slow down the development of its flower buds. Then move the plant into a regularly heated room in mid-December and voilà! Flowers for Christmas!

Enjoy the Bloom Whenever It Occurs

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Thanksgiving cactus in full bloom.

Personally, I’ve learned to love flowers whenever they appear. So I don’t struggle to force my Thanksgiving cactus to bloom for Christmas. If they want to bloom their heads off in November, that’s fine with me. Nor am I upset when both my Christmas cactus and Thanksgiving cactus rebloom in late February or March. Hey, sometimes one will bloom yet again in mid-summer, when the days are long (I have no explanation as to how that happens!) and that’s fine with me too.

I say just enjoy the bloom, whenever it occurs. But then, I am a laidback gardener!

Laidback Gardener Tip of the Day

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Thanksgiving Cactus or Christmas Cactus?

Your Christmas cactus is already in bloom, well before Christmas? That’s probably because you don’t have a true Christmas cactus (Schlumbergera russeliana and its hybrid, S. x buckleyi), but rather a “Thanksgiving cactus” (S. truncata ), so-called because it naturally blooms in November. Greenhouse growers produce Thanksgiving cactus by the millions in barely heated greenhouses designed to delay their bloom until Christmas. So when you buy them the first year, they bloom right on time. But the next year and the following years, no such luck: they bloom heavily, but in November.

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Christmas cactus (Schlumbergera russeliana)

The true Christmas cactus (S. russeliana and S. x buckleyi) can be recognized by its hanging stems with rounded teeth and fuchsia flowers that hang downwards. Commercial growers don’t appreciate its weeping stems because they mingle with those of its neighbors, making the plant hard to ship… and it is also more costly to produce, as it needs a heated greenhouse. It is often found in private homes, as it is a long-lived houseplant, but almost never in garden centers.

novembre 27.3There are many varieties of Thanksgiving cactus (S. truncata) on the market ranging in color from pink to purple, red, white and yellow. They have stems that are generally upright in their youth, although they arch as they grow, and have distinctly pointed teeth, like crab claws. The flowers are carried slightly upright or horizontally. They are readily found in garden centers during the holiday season and also in supermarkets, box stores, and florist shops.

To delay flowering of your Thanksgiving cactus until Christmas next year, keep it cool, 60˚C (15˚C) or less, throughout the autumn. This is what the greenhouse growers who produce them do: by growing them in barely heated greenhouses, they manage to produce Thanksgiving cactus cheaply, just in time for Christmas.