The Anti-Christmas Cactus

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Ever get a pretty little Christmas Cactus as a gift, and wonder why it didn’t bloom the following Christmas?  It’s not being anti-holiday, it’s just tired.

The most likely problem is that your cactus is suffering from a type of insomnia.  Days in sunlight and long evenings in artificial light have robbed it of the ability to go into a period of light dormancy – or rest – which it desperately needs in order to gather enough energy to bloom again.

Circadian rhythm sleep disorders, as we all know, can really do a bang up job of messing with our energy levels.  In the case of plants – which, by the way, also have circadian rhythms – messing with their energy interferes with their basic functions, like: dormancy, budding, blooming, and forming seeds.  Just as some humans are severely affected by erratic schedules and alternating time zones, some plants are very sensitive to it as well.

Yep.  You guessed it.  The Christmas Cactus is one of these.  The problem lies in something called photoperiodism.

Photoperiodism refers to the physical effect on plants of alternating light and dark periods.  Perhaps you’ve heard the terms “short-day plants” and “long-day plants” before, and found it all confusing… but in essence, those terms are just labels meant to tell you which plants are particularly sensitive about how much light they receive – and most importantly – how much darkness they receive.

Long-day plants flower when the daylight lengthens and the darkness of night shortens below a specific threshold – triggering the chemical changes in the plant that initiate budding and flowering.  These are typically the plants that bloom as the days get longer in the spring and summer.

Short-day plants, as might be expected, do the opposite.  It’s the shortening of daylight and the lengthening of darkness that initiates bloom.  These are our fall blooming plants.

Plants that are not critically sensitive to the length of dark and light are called day-neutral plants.  While light plays a factor in day-neutral plants, other factors often play a bigger role in triggering the blooming cycle, such as the age of the plant.

An important thing to remember here is that even though the terms “long-day” and “short-day” make it sound like the length of the daylight is what is most important, it’s not.  What’s most important, what triggers the blooming process is the length of the darkness.  Darkness is what tells the plant when it’s time to bloom.

A Christmas cactus is a tropical plant, not a desert plant, and it’s a short-day plant – which means it needs long nights to initiate bloom.  In its natural habitat (the humid, coastal areas in Brazil) this plant typically blooms in May.  Remember that the seasons are opposite in the southern hemisphere, so May would be roughly equal to November in our northern hemisphere.

The Christmas cactus (genus Schlumbergera) needs a minimum of 12 hours of darkness each day for approximately 6 to 8 weeks before it will initiate bloom.  This requirement was taken care of for you before you first received your blooming plant at Christmastime, but if you want the plant to bloom again the next year, specifically at Christmas, you will need to do the job yourself.  Here’s how you do it:

After it blooms this holiday (if you just bought it or received it) care for it as you would most house plants.  Like the majority of house plants (note: there are always exceptions!) the Christmas cactus does just fine with moderate watering (not bone dry, not sopping wet), average humidity (not water dripping from the ceiling, not air so dry it hurts to breathe), and cool to moderate temperatures (60 to 70ish).

In other words, pretty much like we keep our homes in the winter.

In the spring, after temperatures consistently stay above 50 to 55 degrees at night, put your cactus outside, in an area where it receives morning sun (not hot afternoon sun) and let it spend the spring and summer season outside.  Like your other potted plants outdoors, be sure to water it when needed so it doesn’t dry out.

Now… here’s the tricky part.  Well, maybe not too tricky!  In the fall, when nighttime temperatures start to drop below that 55 degree mark, bring the cactus back inside.  Care for it as usual.  THEN… in mid-October, move it to a darker, cooler area of your house.  Put it in a room you don’t use much.  A second bathroom, or even a guest bedroom.  If the bedroom has windows that’s fine, because you’re not going in there turning the light on for hours every day so the cactus is only getting the natural light – and the natural darkness – from outside those windows.  (Of course, if the windows in that room face a blaring outside porch light then this won’t work.)

The main rule of thumb?  Indirect light for part of the day (such as naturally occurs during daylight hours), but keep it away from the artificial light after the sun goes down.  You are aiming for 12 hours or more of darkness.

As for watering, reduce the amount of water you give your cactus during this time, as you are inducing the cactus into a period of semi-dormancy and it doesn’t need a lot of water during dormancy.  Again, don’t let it go bone dry, but if the soil is a little dry to the touch each time before you give it a little water again, that is a good thing.  Think sips, not gulps.

In 6 to 8 weeks your cactus should start to show signs of budding.  This is when you can start to slowly integrate it back into the routine you had it in before you sent it into hibernation mode… slowly increasing the light exposure, slowly increasing the water schedule.

Your cactus will finally have gotten the rest it needs – no more insomnia – and to show it’s appreciation it should once again display it’s full bloom for you just in time for Christmas.

Happy Holidays everyone!

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The Pink Bluebell – A Garden Fable

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Fancy noticed them whispering, and tried to ignore it.  Still, she couldn’t help but overhear some of the comments.

“It just scorches me how she’s bringing down our property values,” said the bluebell behind the windmill.

“She’s the wrong color to be living here.  She must know she doesn’t belong,” said a gangly bluebell by the fence.

Fancy tried to make herself seem as inconspicuous as possible, bending her pastel pink head to one side to reduce her size.

“Stop slouching,” admonished Petal, her best friend who grew right beside her.

“Easy for you to say,” replied Fancy.

Petal sighed a flutter in the breeze, but didn’t answer.  She was tall and strong and had the sweetest scent in town, a fact which made her the envy of all who knew her.

Fancy, on the other leaf, didn’t have much scent.  This wasn’t unusual for her kind, she knew many bluebells whose scent was as weak as hers, but it didn’t help to have too many weaknesses when you were already different, such as she was.

The main problem Fancy had was the color of her head.  No other bluebells in DJ town were pink.  They were various shades of blue.  Most were a dark, royal blue.  Some were a brilliant azure.  There were even a few baby blues – lucky them – baby blues were the most coveted of all.

But only Fancy was pink.  It was bad to be pink.

She bent her stem forward and nodded toward the ground, still trying to find a way to disappear.

Petal fluttered another sigh before speaking.  She was one of the lucky baby blues and Fancy knew that her friendship with Petal was the only thing keeping the others from crowding her out.  Everyone loved Petal.

“It’s not personal,” said Petal.  “It’s not really you they don’t like.  It’s just your color.  They’re afraid of it.”

“But my color is part of who I am,” cried Fancy.  “I can’t change that.”  She was so upset that she squeezed tight one of her little blossoms, until it detached and floated down to the dark, moist earth beneath her.

“Oh Fancy!  I wish you wouldn’t cry.”  Petal draped one long strap-shaped leaf around her, trying to comfort her friend.

Fancy shuddered but made no attempt to dislodge Petal’s leaf.  All around her she listened to the other bluebells complaining, unable to distract herself from their negativity.  She understood what Petal was saying.  They were afraid of her pink.  What if her kind spread?  What if their offspring grew pink?  The town mayor preferred blue.  What if they or their children were thrown out of the precinct?

The weeds were snickering at her plight, and the daylilies were outright laughing.  Fancy could ignore the weeds… they were the local gang problem and were always up to no good.  A byproduct of the general downtrend in the whole community.

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She put the daylilies out of her mind too.  The way they had spread and snapped up the dirt cheap real estate made them unpopular with everyone these days.  But she couldn’t ignore the way the clematis was egging on its bluebell neighbors.  Why were they always so aggressive?  Or the way the bluebells living down the path were frowning at her, along with the heuchera and geraniums.  What did she ever do to them?

Even the bluebells that lived on the outskirts next to the impressive, giant Hosta cottages, were whispering and pointing their petioles her way.

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Fancy squeezed loose another blossom.  Maybe if she cried enough and lost all her pink, the other bluebells would accept her.

Down the pathway a low, round, spiky head bent forward and addressed her.  “Stop feelin’ sorry fer yourself,” Stinky said.  “I’m the only ornamental onion here and do you see me cryin’?”

Fancy was about to retort that Stinky wasn’t a threat to their offspring, but just then she felt a change in the air current and the ground began to shudder.  Around the weigela bush came the town mayor, DJ herself!  Behind her were four other humans, who stood momentarily surveying the town before leaving again.  When they came back, they had shovels and pruning shears.  One of the humans even had a rototiller.

Oh no!  Developers!

The residents of DJ town cried pleas of mercy but the humans paid them no heed.  This is how it was with humans.  Whether they couldn’t hear or chose to ignore, Fancy wasn’t sure, but every resident tried to communicate with them anyway.

The mayor stood and directed while the workers began digging.  They were moving a group of residents to another block.  At least they were kind enough not to out and out evict residents from the town, except for a few old timers who already had an inkling they were soon moving on to the promised compost-land.

After the workers had relocated the residents, one of them brought out the rototiller and fired it up with a deafening burst of wind and sound.

“They’re clearing the land!” cried Petal.  “Watch out!”  A dozen or so bluebells were in the front line of battle and squealed in fright as the rototiller came dangerously close, but none were as close to the blades as Fancy was.

When the roaring stopped, Fancy and the other bluebells still stood.  There was a great clearing in front of them, Fancy being the closest to the edge.

One of the humans leaned over Fancy.  He was holding a pair of pruners and motioned to the mayor.

“DJ,” he called.  “Come look at this. Why is this one bluebell pink?”

All eyes were on Fancy.

“That’s it!  You’re done for now, you freak!” screamed the weeds.

“So long loser!” hollered the daylilies.

“Save yourself Petal!  Move away from her!”  yelled the other bluebells.

But Petal just folded herself as close to Fancy as she could get.  “Hide under my leaves,” she whispered.  It was too late.  The humans had seen Fancy and were pushing Petal out of the way to get to her.

Fancy closed her blossoms, not wanting to see the inevitable when it happened.  She extended her roots as far and fast as she could and twisted them to hold on tight.

“What a sweet little plant,” said a kind voice.

“It doesn’t fit with the rest,” said another.  Then added, with a hint of humor… “It’s a bit of a rebel, isn’t it?”

“Yes.” answered the kind voice.  “But it adds a special spot of beauty to the whole.”

Fancy risked a peek and opened one blossom.  The kind voice was coming from DJ, the mayor of their fine town.

“Look at how the pink accents the other bluebells.  What a pretty color combination.  If it spreads, won’t the blend be beautiful?”

The other humans agreed, all looking at Fancy and smiling.

“I’ll come out tomorrow and put down grass seed,” said the mayor.  “A green lawn, lined with bluebells, daylilies, and clematis will look lovely here.”  Then two of the workers set an ornate garden bench in a bare spot in front of the pathway, and they all gathered up their tools and left.

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“A green lake,” breathed Petal.  “They’re putting one of the green lakes here.  Right beside us.”  She spread wide her stems and grinned tip to tip.

Fancy grinned right back.  Everyone was murmuring.  First relief, and then joy.  They all loved the green lakes and rivers in their town.  It meant a big jump in property values.

“Thanks for sticking up for me Petal.”  Fancy touched one leaf tip to her friends pretty blue flowers.  “That was a brave thing to do.”

The sun was high in the sky now, and bees were buzzing about the town.  The bluebells were once again staring at Fancy, but they appeared to have a different attitude this time.  She didn’t hear them complaining.  Instead, they were contemplative and quiet.

Petal leaned over and affectionately brushed her baby blue head against Fancy’s pink.  She gestured to the other bluebells but addressed Fancy.  “Know what they’re thinking?”

“What?”

“Their wondering if maybe they shouldn’t try and be your friend too.  Instead of shutting you out.”

“I don’t get it,” replied Fancy.  “Why should they change their minds now?”

“Well, for one, the mayor fancies you,” said Petal.  “They don’t have to worry anymore about losing blue.  They can blend without retribution.”

“So?” said Fancy.  She still couldn’t wrap her stems around the whole, complex problem.

“I told you.  It was never you they didn’t like.  It was their fear of being found pink.”

When Fancy didn’t answer right away Petal nudged her and gently said, “It’s a start, Fancy.  We all have to start somewhere.”

Fancy thought about this.  She wasn’t sure she could forget their ill treatment quite so readily.  But maybe Petal was right.  It was a start.

She swayed in the bright afternoon light, enjoying the bees in her blossoms and the warmth of the soil between her roots.  “Know what, Petal?”

“Hmmm?”  Petal was caught up in the sensation of pollination herself.

“We’re living on lake front property now.”

Petal glanced at her and laughed.  “You got that right!  And guess who owns the prime location?”

Fancy looked around and realized it was her that was closest to the new shoreline.  She laughed back at Petal, straightened to her full height, opened wide every blossom and stretched her anthers.

She tilted her pastel head to gather as much light as she could, and she shined her color for the whole town to see.

Yes, she thought.  Things were definitely looking up.  It  was good to be pink.

The Renegade Bluebell