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Into the Garden: Don't confuse your buckleyi with your truncata

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Horticulture Magazine recently answered one of my "burning plant questions." I have a "Christmas" cactus that always blooms at Thanksgiving. Another typically blooms at Easter. How can I make them bloom at Christmas?

Well, according to the magazine, a Christmas cactus is one of three popular holiday cacti: Easter, Thanksgiving and Christmas.

"You can probably guess by their names when these festive plants usually bloom; Thanksgiving cacti typically start in late fall and Christmas cacti around a month later. An Easter cactus starts producing flower buds in February. If you have a Christmas cactus that always blooms around Thanksgiving, it is probably because of one of the following reasons: It is actually a Thanksgiving cactus, or it blooms early due to growing conditions.

"Thanksgiving cacti are often sold as 'Christmas cacti,' and these two holiday plants look very similar. Both fall under the genus Schlumbergera, have the same color scheme and require the same care. There are two main differences between a Christmas and Thanksgiving cactus: the flowering season, which we have already discussed, and the segments of the leaves. To help determine whether your cactus is a Christmas or Thanksgiving variety, will depend on the edges of the leaf segments. Christmas cacti have smooth, round edges, while Thanksgiving cacti have pointy, jagged ones.

"If your holiday cactus still sounds like it belongs to the merry Christmas groupings, then it probably flowers early in the season due to the growing conditions. Thanksgiving and Christmas cacti need cool temperatures (roughly 55 to 65 degrees) to begin the production of flowers, so your cactus is most likely exposed to this change in weather early. You can help instigate when your plant will bloom by keeping track of the temperature outside. When it is below 50 degrees, you can place the container by a drafty window or when it hits the ideal 55- to 60-degree range, place the container outdoors. These cacti are most successful with longer periods of uninterrupted darkness, around 13 to 16 hours, and shortened days."

The magazine said to be sure you are actually purchasing a Christmas cactus and not a Thanksgiving cactus, go by the botanical name. A Christmas cactus is Schlumbergera x buckleyi, and a Thanksgiving cactus is Schlumbergera truncata.

Readers tell old plant stories

Several weeks ago, I wrote about old, dear houseplants. Many people have plants that are like members of the family. Here are a few wonderful stories from readers.

Linda McCauley writes:

"My old and dear plant is a solid green spider plant that I got in April 1974! Its name is 'Shane.'

"We were a Navy family and were 'home' on emergency leave when my son Shane was born! My 17-year-old brother-in-law was dying of cancer and we went home to be with the family. After getting back home to Virginia Beach, one day, to get out of the house (I was the mother of a 3-year-old and a newborn), I told my husband, 'You've got it for a couple of hours. I need a break!' I stopped at a yard sale and bought the spider plant already potted in a hanging basket for a dollar! Took it home and hung it under the eaves of the house.

"By this time, it was into May and the weather in Virginia Beach is quite different from Randolph County in May! It was warm.

"However, we had a 'freak frost' and 'killed' the plant. A couple of weeks later I noticed green shoots coming up from the roots!

"'Shane' has produced many young ones in his 38 years and been spread over a large portion of the United States by friends in the Navy, until our retirement in 1989 brought us back to West Virginia!"

Jan Hargate was the subject of a column several years ago thanks to her amazing amaryllis collection. She wrote to remind me of an amaryllis she received in 1977 that is still in its original pot. She still has it -- it's not blooming, but it continues to put out leaves each season. She's keeping it just to see how long it stays alive even if it's not blooming.

She also told me about another favorite oldie.

"I also have a ratty-looking Hindu rope plant that was purchased when I lived in Virginia, in the mid-'60s and early '70s. Moved from Virginia in 1975 so it is at least 37 years old. It no longer looks good but has also become an experiment in just how long it keeps hanging in there. When I lived in Toledo, Ohio -- 1975-81 -- I purchased a ponytail palm, which still lives on my deck in the summer and in a big window in the garage in the winter. My recollection is that I bought it early in my Toledo stay, so it is roughly 35 years old.

"Obviously, I take my favorite plants with me when I move. After the van is loaded, the 'keepers' get loaded in the car along with one suitcase, and I am off to my new residence. People at the rest stops along the way must have been really amused when they peeked into my car!"

Betsy Keene, of South Charleston, tells of a dear old perennial in her garden.

"It is a coral bell. My grandmother lived on Oakmont Road in South Hills and had a gorgeous rock garden behind her home. I remember it as a little girl. My mother used to tell how the newspaper would come and take pictures!

"She died in 1960 and the house was sold. My mother brought a coral bell from the garden to her home on Forest Circle and later shared it with me. My mother passed away in 2001. As both my daughters have now settled into what may be their 'forever homes,' I will be sharing this very special plant with the next generation."

Thanks for writing!

Reach Sara Busse at sjbusse@gmail.com.


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