Why Is My Christmas Cactus Blooming Now?

Why Is My Christmas Cactus Blooming Now?

University of Minnesota Extension
Julie Weisenhorn

Is your grandmother’s pass along Christmas cactus blooming really early? Do the leaf segments have “teeth” along the edges? Are the “stringy things” sticking out of the flowers yellow in color?  Well, I hate to tell you this, but that is not a Christmas cactus, (Schlumbergera bridgesii). It is a Thanksgiving cactus, (Schlumbergera truncata). You can tell the Thanksgiving cactus apart from the Christmas cactus by the shape of the leaves and flower anthers. The leaves, botanically referred to as phylloclades, are serrated on the Thanksgiving cactus. Additionally, the pollen-bearing anthers in Thanksgiving cactus flowers are yellow. Christmas cactus have smooth-edged leaves and pinkish-purple anthers.  Both of these species are native to the coastal mountains of south-eastern Brazil, where they are found growing in trees or on rocks. Therefore, the preferred potting media for Thanksgiving and Christmas cacti should contain about 40% perlite to ensure good drainage and aeration.  To care for your Thanksgiving cactus, allow the soil to dry out when it is not blooming. As flower buds develop, the soil should be moist to the touch. However, overwatering can kill the plant. Additionally, provide plenty of indirect light and temperatures of 60-65 degrees F.  Want to get last year’s plant to bloom again? Beginning in mid-September, it will need 12-14 hours of total darkness along with cool (60-65 degrees F) nighttime temperatures for 3-4 weeks. To achieve the light control the cactus can be placed in a closet or covered with a large brown paper bag overnight. Once buds start to form, fertilizer can be applied to encourage growth and blooms. However, flower buds will fall off with any significant changes in temperature (below 50 degrees F), light or watering.

Now, if your “Christmas cactus” doesn’t set flowers until spring, it is probably an Easter cactus, a totally different species (Rhipsalidopsis gaetner). The leaf margins of Easter cactus have small bristles and are more three-dimensional with a thick ridge on one side. Additionally, the flower are more star-shaped than the other two cacti. All three cacti species have flowers that come in a range of colors including variations of red, pink, peach, purple, orange or white.

The Right Loropetalum for Your Garden

The Right Loropetalum for Your Garden

A very popular landscape shrub installed by both professionals and homeowners is Loropetalum or Chinese fringe.  This shrub offers attractive foliage and flowers along with being evergreen.
When you visit a nursery to select this plant for your landscape, realize that there are now many selections of Loropetalum available.  Learn about a few of the common selections in this recording of  ‘In the Garden’, with UF/ IFAS Extension Escambia County Horticulture Agent Beth Bolles, so that you are successful at matching the appropriate plant with your landscape needs.

Heating up with Hardy Hibiscus

Each time I travel to central and south Florida and observe the wonderfully flamboyant tropical flora, I am reminded of the unique and frustrating climatic characteristics of Northwest Florida.  Our weather is tropical enough through the summer to sustain virtually everything our friends to the south grow, but winters north of the Big Bend are just cold enough to prevent long-term success with most tropical species.  However, the genus that is maybe most synonymous with tropical color, the Hibiscus (it even has its own texting emoji!), contains several species that are hardy through our winters.  The best landscape plant of these hardy Hibiscus species is creatively (sarcasm) called Hardy Hibiscus or Giant Rose Mallow (Hibiscus moscheutos) and is an absolute star in the Panhandle, bringing the beauty of the tropics to your yard!

Hibiscus ‘Starry Starry Night’ – Photo courtesy Daniel Leonard

Rose Mallow is a native perennial species that occurs in sunny wetlands across the eastern U.S.  This species can grow 7-8’ in height in its natural, unimproved state and possesses the largest flowers of any hardy perennial, some varieties easily eclipse 12” in diameter.  Rose Mallows bloom through the heat of our long summers and return reliably each winter unfazed by frost.  The flowers also happen to be a favorite of butterflies and hummingbirds and bring beneficial wildlife to the landscape.  These characteristics and the trend towards the use of pollinator friendly, low-maintenance native perennials in landscapes quickly made Rose Mallow a jewel for plant breeders and now virtually all major horticultural brands have a line of Hardy Hibiscus available at garden centers, in varying sizes, flower color and leaf color/form.  Recent breeding efforts have focused on introducing plants with enormous, richly colored flowers held on compact plants with attractive foliage.  The results have yielded two series and three individual cultivars that I consider superior selections and are more than worthy of inclusion in your garden:

  • Summerific® Series by Proven Winners. This series is comprised of four robust (up to 5’ in height) cultivars, ‘Cherry Cheesecake’ (bicolor magenta and white flowers), ‘Berry Awesome’ (purplish lavender flowers), ‘Cranberry Crush’ (a red you really have to see to believe), and ‘Perfect Storm’ (notable for its deep purple foliage).
  • Luna Series by Monrovia. This series is notable for its ultra-compact (3’ in height or less) size and characteristically large flowers.  It is also composed of four cultivars, ‘Luna Red’ (deep red), ‘Luna Blush’ (white, fading to pink near flower margins), ‘Luna Pink Swirl’ (pictured and my favorite, bicolor swirly flowers), and ‘Luna White’ (white with a red center).

    Hibiscus ‘Luna Pink Swirl’ – Photo courtesy Daniel Leonard

  • ‘Starry Starry Night’ by Walter’s Gardens. (Pictured) This cultivar combines dark purple to black leaves with swirled pale and dark pink flowers.  It has performed very well in my landscape and if I could only grow one, this might be it.
  • ‘Lord Baltimore.’ The classic, large growing cultivar with bright red flowers that is widely available and easily found.  An oldie (introduced in 1955) but a goodie.
  • ‘Midnight Marvel’ by Walter’s Gardens. A “hot off the press” new cultivar that is currently difficult to find due to popularity, though some online outlets have them available in small sizes.  This one is worth your patience.  Sporting deep red blooms on near black foliage, there’s nothing else like it in the landscape.

In addition to being gorgeous plants, Rose Mallows are extremely versatile in the landscape and could not be easier to grow.  Because the size varies so greatly (from the diminutive 30” tall ‘Luna’ series to the 8’ tall unimproved species), there really is a place for one in every garden.  I like to use the smaller cultivars in large containers to facilitate moving them around where their floral display has the greatest impact or to create a tropical effect where in ground plantings are not an option (pool decks, patios, etc).  The larger cultivars make spectacular specimen plantings in perennial and shrub beds and even make a really dense, striking hedge (just know they disappear in the winter).  Be sure to give them as much sun as possible, as this will enhance the number of flowers on each plant and darken the foliage on the cultivars with purplish/black leaves.  Too little sun will result in fewer flowers and lighter green foliage.  As wetland plants, Rose Mallows enjoy regular water, either from rainfall or irrigation; they will let you know when they need it – their large leaves readily wilt under drought stress, somewhat like Hydrangea.

For low-maintenance, native, pollinator friendly, cold-hardy tropical color, you need look no further than Rose Mallow.  These perennial shrubs come in all sizes and colors and fit any landscape!  Look for the above listed series and cultivars at better garden centers and online retailers and enjoy the oohs and ahhs elicited when people first get a glimpse of Hardy Hibiscus in your landscape!  Happy Gardening!

 

Annuals to Beat the Summer Heat

It’s that time of year.  School is out, hurricane season is in, and the mercury is up!  Gardens wilt by midday and gardeners retreat into the air conditioning long before then.  Unless you have your toes in the water on one of Northwest Florida’s beautiful beaches, it can be a miserable time to be a Floridian, for plants and people!    However, despite the relentless heat and blistering sunshine, low-maintenance, eye-catching color can still be had in the landscape.  When the calendar flips to June, I turn to my two favorite Florida-Friendly annuals to do the heavy lifting in my landscape:  ‘Diamond Frost’ Euphorbia, and the ‘Cora’ Vinca series.

‘Diamond Frost’ Euphorbia – Photo Courtesy Daniel Leonard

A relative newcomer to landscapes, the award winning ‘Diamond Frost’ Euphorbia is an amazing introduction from Proven Winners.  The ultimate in tough, ‘Diamond Frost’ does great both as a mounding accent in a container or as a standalone bedding plant in the landscape. Though its individual, teardrop-shaped, white flowers are tiny, the hundreds of them that open each day really pack a floral punch in the landscape!  One caveat: if planting in the landscape, I find ‘Diamond Frost’ to be most effective massed in groups of three or more.   Due to the daintiness of the flowers, a single plant can get lost among other garden inhabitants.  However, when done right, ‘Diamond Frost’ is a proven winner in any landscape!

Mixed container featuring ‘Diamond Frost’ Euphorbia – Photo Courtesy Daniel Leonard

 

Next, the ‘Cora’ series of Vinca (Catharanthus roseus), also introduced by Proven Winners, is an improvement on an old favorite.  Note: This species is also, on occasion, called Periwinkle.  However, do not confuse it with the spreading, purple-flowered, perennial groundcover of the same common name!  Gardeners in the South have been growing Vincas for years. This species is unbelievably tolerant of harsh conditions, sometimes even seen growing in sidewalk cracks!  However, the unimproved species had an Achilles heel:  susceptibility to Phytophthora, a devastating fungal rot disease.  ‘Cora’ overcomes this issue and is as close to a perfect bedding annual as you’re likely to find.  The ‘Cora’ series is composed of cultivars with pinwheel-shaped white, pink and lavender flowers, a color for everyone!  The kind (and clever) marketing folks at Proven Winners have even made ‘Cora’ easy to spot on retail nursery benches; just look for the plants in the hot pink containers!

‘Cora’ Vinca
Photo: Andrea Schnapp

Both of the above-described plants are extremely undemanding of gardeners.  Once established, little is required in the way of irrigation and fertilization.  To ensure success, water daily for the first week after planting, back off to a couple of times per week for the next two weeks or so and then watch ‘Diamond Frost’ and ‘Cora’ thrive with only rainfall for the rest of the summer!  Keep in mind, during periods of excessive drought, supplemental watering may be required to keep any plant, even drought tolerant ones, looking their best!  To meet the minimal nutrition demands of these plants, I incorporate a quality, slow-release fertilizer (for example, Osmocote, Harrell’s Polyon, or any other similar product) at planting.  These products last two or three months in our rainy, hot, humid climate and generally need a second application accordingly for full-season performance.  ‘Diamond Frost’ Euphorbia and ‘Cora’ Vinca also require full, blazing sun for maximum floral performance.  Don’t be shy about siting them in harsh, sunny places, even a few hours of shade tend to make leggier plants that flower less!

Mixed container with ‘Cora’ Vinca accent
Photo: Andrea Schnapp

When you need low-maintenance, season long color that can beat the heat, look for ‘Diamond Frost’ Euphorbia and the ‘Cora’ series of Vinca at your local nursery!  Stay cool out there folks and happy gardening!

Ready for Summer Heat with Portulaca

There is one tough annual plant that thrives in the summer garden and provides bright color in our sun and heat. Portulaca or moss rose (Portulaca grandiflora) is strong performer, even growing well when reseeding in sidewalk cracks and stone walkways.  Of course it will be most attractive when used in containers or well drained landscape beds in bright sunshine.

Containers of portulaca brighten an entrance to the herb garden at Escambia County Extension Demonstration Gardens. Photo by Beth Bolles, UF IFAS Extension Escambia County

The thicker, flattened leaves of portulaca make is adaptable to drier conditions. The plants are only about 6 inches tall but branches will spread out a foot or so from the center.  The attractive flowers extend just above attractive green foliage in colors of yellow, pinks, and oranges.  Portulaca is extremely versatile, making it a good filler in a container or at the edges of flower beds along hardscape areas.

Bright flowers of portulaca reach for the sun. Photo by Beth Bolles, UF IFAS Extension Escambia County

Portulaca will not perform the best when soils remain too moist or days stay overcast for extended periods. Flowering will also be reduced if water is totally lacking.  Maintain a balance by providing a quality soil that drains well.

Although many gardeners prefer perennials to annuals, portulaca can provide a big impact in the summer garden for a small investment.