Tips for brightening the season with Christmas cactus and poinsettia

It is the time of year for a Christmas Cactus or poinsettia — or maybe both — to appear in your home to help wish everyone a Merry Christmas. And welcome guests they are, with their bright color!

The poinsettia with its red, pink, white or variegated color is especially cheery. Those aren't blossoms you see, however — but colored leaves.

The plant asks for two things in your home — bright light and for you to not overwater it.

Like other houseplants, more poinsettias are killed by overwatering than anything else, so always feel the soil before giving it a drink. If you wish to use it as a centerpiece on a coffee or dining table, do so just for a day or so, and then put it back to spend most of its time in a bright window.

Although it is possible with special care to keep it for another year, most people use the poinsettia as a holiday decoration and then discard it.

A Christmas cactus (Schlumbergera) is more long-lasting, often for many years. I have one that was my mother's, and my daughters each have a start from it, too. Because they are easy to propagate, I've also collected them from friends and relatives, and one from an orphaned plant in an office where I once worked.

To start a new Christmas cactus, simply cut or twist off three or four segments from the leaf of a friend's plant. Let it dry for a day or so to allow it to seal over. Meanwhile, fill a pot with a mix of peat moss and perlite, if you have them. If not, the cuttings will root in potting soil or even in a glass of water. Moisten the rooting medium; if using potting soil, don't make it sopping wet.

Plant the cutting half the depth of the first segment in the rooting medium. Set it in a bright place, but not in direct sun. Don't be alarmed if the cutting wilts — that's normal. Do not add more water with hopes of reviving it.

When you see signs of new growth on the segment you've planted, that's a sign it is growing roots. When your starting piece has grown a new segment, you can transplant it if you wish, or lightly fertilize it if you want to keep it in the same pot. If you started it in water or perlite, this is the time to pot it up in potting soil.

In the spring, when all danger of frost has passed, your Christmas cactus (of any age) will be happy to spend the summer outdoors in filtered shade. Fertilize it about three times a year with a 20-20-20 fertilizer, and keep it moist, not wet.

Bring it indoors in October, before we get frost. At this point, your cactus needs at least 12 hours of darkness per day (no artificial light, either). Stop watering it when you bring it in, too, and keep it in a cool place. Around the end of November, put it in a bright window, water it, and it will bud up in short order. The time may vary with the variety. I have one that insists on blooming for Thanksgiving, whatever I do. No matter — it is holiday time, and I welcome the blooms.

One word of caution, if you want to go out and buy a Christmas cactus. Protect it from the cold as you bring it home, or the sudden chill of the outdoors may make it drop its buds and blossoms. But with your help, it will be on its way to becoming a larger and showier plant as each year passes.

Coming up: Yours truly will teach a class called "Think Spring in December." We will focus on getting a jump on spring without the use of a greenhouse. The class will be from 7 to 9 p.m. Tuesday, Dec. 10, at the Southern Oregon Research and Extension Center, 569 Hanley Road, Central Point. The cost is $5. Call 541-776-7371 to register.

Carol Oneal is a past president of the OSU Jackson County Master Gardeners Association. Email her at diggit1225@gmail.com.


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