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Christmas Cactus, Paperwhite Narcissus and Other Holiday Plants

It’s that time of year when the weather outside turns frightful — or at least a bit chilly — and, in northern climates anyway, there’s nothing blooming outside. So it’s natural to crave a little holiday cheer indoors in the form of live blooming plants. Your local flower shop can fix you up with several choices, from the ubiquitous poinsettia to an exotic bromeliad (click HERE for poinsettia care tips in a previous newsletter). Two long-time favorites that are available right now are the old-fashioned Christmas cactus and the deliriously fragrant paperwhite narcissus. We’ll talk about the Christmas cactus first.

The Christmas Cactus

Christmas CactusThe plants most commonly known as Christmas cactus are members of either of two species: Schlumbergera or Zygocactus. The many cultivars of Schlumbergera bridgesii are the most commonly available, with flower colors ranging from red to white with every shade of peach, pink, fuchsia, and even yellow in between. The Christmas cactus is an epiphytic (tree- dwelling) succulent plant, native to the warm, humid rainforests of Central and South America, and while it is botanically a true cactus, it should not be treated like those fat, spiny cacti found in the deserts of the southwestern United States.

Christmas Cactus Care

Christmas cactus care is fairly easy. It does well if given plenty of light (but no direct, burning sun) and regular watering during the growing season of spring and summer. A little extra humidity is appreciated too, which can be accomplished by misting the plant frequently with water. Keep the plant warm. Soil should be well-drained, and the pot ought to be a little snug.

Forcing A Christmas Cactus To Bloom

In the fall, gradually reduce the amount and frequency of watering and begin to prepare the plant for dormancy. This is how to get a Christmas cactus to bloom. Being a so-called “short day” plant (just like the poinsettia), a Christmas cactus requires as least 12 hours of completely uninterrupted darkness every night for about three weeks beginning October 1st. This long period of darkness each night induces the plant to set flower buds, and even the light from an overhead fixture or a street lamp outside the window can disrupt the cycle. During dormancy, maintain the soil on the dry side, but never completely dried out so that the plant shrivels. Cool nighttime temperatures are preferred for buds to set — around 60° F. Beware, however, that buds and flowers may drop if the plant is too cold, too wet, or in a draft.

After flowering, the Christmas cactus will need a rest. Continue to water infrequently and provide cooler night temperatures. In spring, resume normal watering, keep the plant warm and humid, and fertilize every two weeks or so throughout the growing season with a balanced house plant food. Given proper care, a happy Christmas cactus can live for decades.

Paperwhite Daffodils For Christmas

There are no flower bulbs better for forcing than the paperwhite narcissus (daffodils), and they’re usually available right about now. You can either buy the pre-cooled, loose narcissus bulbs by themselves, or ask your florist for some paperwhites that have already been potted up and are beginning to sprout. In either case, the bulbs have already been subjected to an imposed dormant period, making forcing easier. Besides paperwhites, loose narcissus bulbs are also available in a yellow variety called ‘Soleil d’Or’. Select large, firm bulbs. You can plant them closely together in a pot, burying the bulbs just up to the neck in a well-drained soil mixture. Keep the soil evenly moist. Or place them in a shallow dish which is filled with gravel to support the bulbs. Keep the dish full of water. Start them off in a dark, cool spot until they begin to sprout.

Growing Paperwhites

As the narcissus bulbs start to grow, place them in a very bright, sunny window. The maximum amount of light will help keep the growing foliage and flower scapes from stretching and becoming weak and leggy. If the stems do get too weak, support them with slender green plant stakes. Keep the bulbs cooler at night to promote stocky growth.

Paperwhite Blooming Indoors

Forcing paperwhites indoors generally produces flowers in 3 or 4 weeks. Make successive plantings to enjoy a longer blooming period. Bulbs that have been forced usually won’t bloom again, so it’s best to discard them after they’ve flowered.

With a little advance planning — or some help from your local florist — it’s possible to have flowers blooming indoors all winter long. What a lovely way to brighten the season! And of course, a gift of flowers is always appreciated. All of us at Flower Shop Network wish you and yours a very happy and peaceful holiday.

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