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Fireworks in the Window

Published in the six Nashoba Publishing papers on Friday, 16 November 2001 [slightly edited from that version]

My Schlumbergera are blooming! Christmas Cactus, Thanksgiving Cactus, Easter Cactus... the names are so confused, and the number of crossbred varieties so large, that some just call them all Holiday Cactus, or Winter-blooming Cactus.

These houseplants are true cacti; they survive severe dry spells — though recent studies show they bloom more if soil is just barely moist during summer dormancy. They’re epiphytes: they grow in the detritus that collects in the branches of trees in Brazilian rainforests — and like bright but filtered sun. With more sun, leaves turn reddish (actually they’re stems, the plant has no true leaves); but that won’t hurt the plant, it’s just an indication that there’s enough photosynthesis going on without needing chlorophyll everywhere, and so other pigments get to show off. One of mine thrives in a south-facing window all year, but if I take it outdoors in summer I give it some shade. Too much sun, and they burn crisp and brown.

According to authorities, these plants bloom after temperatures have dipped below 60 for a few weeks. Or even in warmer temperatures, after fewer than 8 hours of light per day for 20 to 25 days. In bloom, they need more water; if you let them go dry the buds will drop off. But when I neglect watering them, then get more responsible again (and the days are short), they respond with a new flush of bloom. The flowers can be pink, purple, orange, red, yellow, or white — as well as subtle mixes or dramatic variegations. They don’t need much fertilizer, but liquid seaweed will encourage more bloom. The brittle stems break easily; the pieces also root easily if you stick them in soil (use a light, porous, quick-draining mix).

I get excited when the buds first start to swell at the ends of the fleshy stems. At first they look like a dot at the bottom of an exclamation mark, then they grow into a pointed cylinder like a brand-new lipstick; finally when the petals open, they flare up and back away from the pistil and stamens, in a grand gesture like ruffled wings, or fireworks exploding. Indeed the plant as a whole is an explosion of flowers. And each diaphanous petal of each exploding flower refracts light in sparkling color as though lit from within.

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© Copyright 2001 Catherine Holmes Clark