The cactus of christmas

Central American plant adds seasonal color here, too
2012-12-16T00:00:00Z The cactus of christmasElena Acoba Special To The Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star

Horticulturist Eric Clark's mother inherited her grandmother's Christmas cactus; it must be around 80 years old now.

Phil Seader reports that Christmas cactus plants at Green Things Nursery where he works average 75 to 100 blossoms.

For a holiday plant, Christmas cactus (Schlumbergera) does not disappoint.

The Central American native does well in Tucson as long as it's kept out of the cold. Clark, who works at Civano Nursery, maintains it is easier to care for than poinsettias and will easily bloom every winter.

"It's very appropriate (to use) to celebrate the holiday season in the Desert Southwest," he says.

This tropical cactus species has a small number of dull spines at the end of each stem. Its flowers come in reds, whites and pinks, as well as some lavender and fuchsia hues.

The plant blooms when it gets about equal light and dark hours, so its natural peak flowering time is around the fall and spring equinoxes.

Both nurserymen offer these care tips:

• To force blooms, over several days put the plant in darkness for 12 to 13 hours, then in indirect light for the rest of the day.

• Keep soil moist but not soggy. Shriveling stems mean you're underwatering; yellowing stems indicate overwatering.

• Fertilize with half-strength liquid fertilizer once a month after the plant stops blooming, generally between March and October.

• The cactus does fine outdoors in summer shade but should stay in the house during frosts.

• Christmas cactus likes to be root-bound, so you don't need to repot for years, says Clark. You can slip the potted plant into a more decorative container.

• If you do repot, use cactus soil with good drainage.

• Seader doesn't recommend planting into the ground where it can be exposed to cold. "I think they look prettier in pots anyway," he says.

The Sonoran Desert has its own seasonal cactus to grow.

The Christmas cholla (Opuntia leptocaulis) is ripening its bright-red winter fruit, giving it a festive look this time of year.

"It looks gorgeous when it's Christmas," says Jim Verrier, director of Desert Survivors Native Plant Nursery.

It's the only cholla that fruits in the winter.

It actively grows in the summer toward its mature height of about 3 feet, Verrier says.

Small, yellow flowers sprout from pencil-thin stems in the fall.

Grow them in the yard under the diffused sunlight of a tree or shrub. They don't like extreme cold and do best below 4,000 feet.

Contact Tucson freelance writer Elena Acoba at acoba@dakotacom.net

Copyright 2014 Arizona Daily Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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