Some bloom at Thanksgiving, others at Easter, but the most famous of them come into their glory at Christmas. Collectively they are called Christmas cactus, and a healthy blooming Christmas cactus adds a delicate beauty during the holidays with rich cascades of frilly blooms that last for weeks. Stunning colors and variations distinguish Christmas cacti with pale apricot, or pure white, or sparkling pink touched with white or traditional reds to be found at many garden centers this month.

Christmas Cactus (Schlumbergera bridgesii) and Thanksgiving Cactus (Schlumbergera truncate) are popular flowering holiday plants. Both are epiphytes native to the jungles of South America. Epiphytic plants grow on other plants and use them for support but not for nutrients.
How can you tell which one you have? Though these cacti are different species, they will hybridize and produce varying stem shapes. Note that Christmas cactus normally has smooth stem segments, while Thanksgiving cactus has hook-like appendages on each segment.
With proper care, a Christmas cactus can bloom for several weeks and can re-bloom year after year. The Plant Doctors at the American Phytopathological Society (APS) offer the following care tips to help keep your Christmas cactus healthy throughout-and-beyond this holiday season:
• When selecting your plant, make sure it has an even green color. According to Gary Moorman, professor of plant pathology at Penn State University, it is important to look for yellow spotting and branches that appear purple as these may be indicators of disease. Look at stems near the soil line to make sure there is no damage or rotting. A diseased stem will appear tan and will be soft to the touch.
• Place the plant in an area that receives bright, natural light, but not direct sun. Both of these cacti like bright indirect light. Too much sun may cause leaves to turn yellow. Common household temperatures are fine. (To get the plant to bloom, place it in a room where natural day lengths are not disrupted. Do not place in a room that will be lit during the evening or at night. A Christmas cactus will flower during the shortest days of the year and especially in places where it receives uninterrupted nights.
• If you find a location in your home where the plant flowers nicely, don’t move the plant from this area for extended periods of time. The plant will begin to lose its blooms if it is moved to rooms that have different amounts of light, temperature or humidity.
• Moderately water your plant. Although it is a cactus, be sure to avoid drought conditions. If the potting mix feels moist to the touch, then it probably has enough water. Keep soil constantly moist but not waterlogged.
• Keep your plant healthy by periodically repotting it; however these plants seem to flower best if kept a little pot bound. If you need to repot, try waiting until spring. When repotting, use a potting mix that does not contain field soil, which can harbor disease-causing pathogens. According to Moorman, two of the most common diseases that affect Christmas cacti are Fusarium stem rot and Phytophthora stem rot. Fusarium stem rot causes brown spots to form at the soil line and Phytophthora stem rot causes the stem to appear wet or water-soaked at the soil line.
• Christmas cacti make great gifts and new plants can be produced from cuttings. When making cuttings, cut a short branch just below a knuckle. Insert the cutting into moist peat moss and cover the pot with plastic wrap to keep the humidity high. Do not place cuttings in direct sun. The cuttings should begin to form roots in two to three weeks.
The APS is a non-profit, professional scientific organization with 5,000 worldwide members whose research advances the understanding the science of plant pathology and its application to plant health.
Wishing you a beautiful and peaceful Christmas and happy holiday season.
Reblooming poinsettias

All too often that quintessential holiday plant, the poinsettia, is simply discarded along with the shedding tree and brittle wreaths after the festivities are over. But with care, you can save this year’s poinsettia, and get it to flower again next year when you follow a light/dark protocol.
Poinsettias are natives of Mexico, and are used to warm temperatures and plenty of sunshine. Keep the plant where it can get full sun and is out of cold drafts. Do not let the soil dry out, watering only when necessary to prevent it from becoming water-logged. When temperatures warm in the late spring the plant can be moved outdoors for the warmer months.
Poinsettias are known as “short-day” plants. Growers know that poinsettias can be brought into bloom if they are given short days and long nights. The flower portion of a poinsettia are actually the inconspicuous little yellow area at the center of the red leafy portion of the plant. Flower formation which turns the upper leaves (bracts) red, is triggered by long periods of uninterrupted darkness. For poinsettia, at least 12 hours of each 24 must be uninterrupted dark. Night temperature also has an effect and should be below 70 degrees F with 60 to 65 degrees F preferred. Here’s how to do it:
• During the day, place the plants in the sunniest location of the house. This high level of light is needed for the plants to have the energy required for good bract coloration. Day temperatures should range between 65 and 75 degrees F.
• Providing uninterrupted darkness can be a problem unless there is a room in which the lights are never turned on. If you don’t have such a room, place your poinsettia in a dark closet or cover it with a cardboard box each night for the required 12 hours. If using a cardboard box, tape all the seams with duct tape to cut off any light.
• Poinsettia takes anywhere between eight and 11 weeks to flower once the dark treatment has been started. Normally, people start the dark treatment in early October. So mark those calenders now to remind you next fall. The first six weeks are critical. For every night you miss during the first six weeks, add two days to the bloom time. After the six-week dark treatment, the buds have set and the dark treatment is no longer needed.

Burpee Youth Garden Award deadline near

Burpee Home Gardens is now accepting applications for the 2012 “I Can Grow” Youth Garden Award, according to a recent item in the online newsletter “Green Profit’s Buzz” by Ellen Wells. The competition is for urban school or community gardens.
The third annual contest will award five grand prizes of up to 500 veggie and herb plants; five gallons of Daniels Plant Food; a hose-end sprayer; and a Flip video camera to catch all the gardening action. plus the top two entries will receive $2,500 for gardening supplies and on-site assistance from the Burpee Home Gardens gurus.
The deadline is Dec. 23. For information on the competition and for an application, go to burpeehomegardens.com.