Finer Points Of Cactus Care

THE REAL DIRT

December 05, 1993|By MIKE KLINGAMAN

As the holidays near, I am repeatedly asked the question:

How do I grow healthy Christmas plants?

My answer: Don't let me near them. My seasonal plants all drop dead.

Our basement is littered with empty pots wrapped in red and green foil, the ghosts of Christmas plants past.

Each year I mourn their passing, but nothing changes. The "living" Christmas tree, neatly balled and burlapped, always sheds needles during the trimming.

The amaryllis keels over as we're opening presents. The poinsettia sometimes lingers until the Rose Bowl, when the last leaf falls.

I've killed every known holiday offering except the pear tree named in "The 12 Days of Christmas." Under my care, that pear would be dead by the end of the song.

We're lucky if one plant survives the New Year.

This is discouraging. Dead leaves and droopy stems tend to kill the Christmas spirit. Who wants to spend the holidays throwing deceased poinsettias on the compost pile?

I get so depressed that this season I vowed to take a holiday from plants.

That's when my wife brought home a cactus.

"For you," Meg said. "An early present."

I stared at the cactus, 1-foot tall and full of prickly spines. What should I do with it, I asked.

"Decorate it for Christmas," she said.

How does one trim a cactus?

V-e-e-e-r-y carefully.

There is method to Meg's madness. It's hard to kill cactus, a low-maintenance and pest-free plant that has survived for millions of years. Ignore a poinsettia and it dies. Forget a cactus and it thrives.

In fact, the less attention it gets, the more cactus prospers. Cactuses are succulents, plants that store water in their tissues for long dry spells. They are the camels of the plant world; a 2-ton saguaro, the largest member of the cactus family, can hold 250 gallons of water.

Like most of the 2,000 species of cactuses, saguaros grow only in arid regions. Perhaps 100 others are cold-hardy types that can brave temperatures as low as minus-40 degrees. However, what these cactuses can't abide are wet feet, forcing most of them inside in winter.

The hardiest cactuses -- called opuntias, or prickly pears -- grow low to the ground, have huge flowers and fruit that tastes like watermelon, once the barbs are removed. Favorites include Bunny Ears, Fairy Castles and Beavertail.

Most cactuses bloom briefly in spring or early summer. A few, like the popular Christmas cactus, bear winter flowers. These small cactuses are native to tropical rain forests and require more water (and less light) than desert types.

The Christmas cactus has arching, fuchsia-like arms with flat, segmented pads, scalloped edges . . . and no spines. The plant can bloom white or pink, depending on room temperature and the acidity of the soil. Surroundings of 60 degrees and "neutral" soil produce white flowers. Anything else produces pink ones.

Triggering the blooming process is easy. Just place the Christmas cactus in a cool room (40 to 60 degrees) for several hours. Flowering occurs about eight weeks later.

Because of their jungle roots, Christmas cactuses need ample moisture and nourishment to flower. Water every 10 days during the growing season. (Beware of "softened" tap water -- cactuses detest the salt.)

When the blooms fade, the plant enters its rest, or dormant, period. Restrict watering during this time. Don't worry that the cactuses look pruney. Most cactuses shrivel naturally in winter.

Cactuses make interesting gifts, given their weird and oft-comical shapes. There are curved, straight, twisted and round plants. The Powderpuff cactus, a prickly globe, resembles a blowfish. The Teddybear is oddly named; its barbs are among the sharpest around.

When shopping for cactuses, it's fun to try to match plants with people. For instance, a favorite aunt might like the Old Lady cactus, which is covered with long white hairs. Then again, maybe not.

Whatever your choice, throw in some tweezers and a pair of leather gloves. Cactus growers are always getting stuck by spines, some of which must be surgically removed.

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