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Vermont Garden Journal: The Christmas Cactus And Other Confusing Plant Names

Unlike true cactus that grow in desert climates, the Christmas cactus is native to the wet, coastal mountains of Brazil.
Nadezhda Nesterova
Unlike true cactus that grow in desert climates, the Christmas cactus is native to the wet, coastal mountains of Brazil.

Common plant names can be misleading. Joe Pye weed isn't a weed at all. Eggplant does not bear eggs and I have yet to find crabs on my crabapples. The name Christmas cactus is the same. You'd think it would bloom at Christmas time, but mine start in November and continue through late winter.

To understand why, remember that not all Christmas cactus are alike. Most are hybrids of a few species that may bloom in winter. If your cactus is flowering now and has pointed teeth on the leaf margins, then it's a Thanksgiving cactus. The traditional Christmas cactus blooms closer to New Years and has rounded leaf margins. If you have some that bloom in late winter with hairs in the leaf joints, you may have an Easter cactus. I call them all holiday cactus and, luckily, you treat them all the same.

Unlike true cactus, holiday cactus are native to the wet, southeastern, coastal mountains of Brazil. Holiday cactus are easy to grow. Plant them in peat moss-rich potting soil, place them in a cool room with filtered light and don't over-water.  Holiday cactus develop flowers in response to short days and cool temperatures. Place your cactus in a cool room during fall and keep the soil dry. Once flower buds form, avoid hot or cold drafts or the buds could drop. Repot overgrown cactus after flowering.

Now for this week's tip: if you're food-scrap composting, place two handfuls of high carbon materials, such as chopped leaves, peat moss or straw, in the composter with every handful of kitchen scraps. This will keep the compost from getting smelly and slimy.

Charlie Nardozzi is a nationally recognized garden writer, radio and TV show host, consultant, and speaker. Charlie is the host of All Things Gardening on Sunday mornings at 9:35 during Weekend Edition on Vermont Public. Charlie is a guest on Vermont Public's Vermont Edition during the growing season. He also offers garden tips on local television and is a frequent guest on national programs.
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