Lessons Learned Growing Houseplants

– Posted in: What's up/blooming

I‘ve been growing houseplants since high school, but I never stop learning new things about them. Take zygocacti (Schlumbergera)–popularly known as Thanksgiving cactus and Christmas cactus. The standard advice is to put them in a dark place for 12-14 hours a night in order to get them to bloom. In high school I avoided growing Christmas cactus because I knew I would never remember to do that night after night.

My mother-in-law didn’t follow that advice. She put hers in the basement family room until they set buds, and then brought them upstairs to enjoy the blooms. I don’t think she used that family room very often, so maybe they got the darkness they needed that way as well. Who knows?

But it inspired me to give them a try, especially since she was kind enough to root a piece for me. In my previous home they started blooming right on schedule after spending time in a (not dark) upstairs bedroom. But in this house bloom had been sporadic–until I followed the advice of my readers. Many of you told me in the comments that you took them outside for the summer and left them outside until they were in danger of getting frosted. (Which is not necessarily at the time of the first frost, because if the first frost is light and they are stationed on the porch or hanging from a tree, the frost may not touch them.)

Now they bloom abundantly, but not at Thanksgiving or Christmas. No, they have buds on them within days of coming inside, and are blooming abundantly right now!

Christmas cactus

This is my most prolific Christmas Thanksgiving cactus, a hand-me-down from my mother.

I’ve recently realized that even though my mother bought it blooming sometime in December, the leaves indicate that it’s actually a Thanksgiving cactus. The Laidback Gardener illustrates the differences clearly. The Christmas cactus that came from my mother-in-law (not pictured), which I’ve had for far longer, is just setting buds and may bloom for Thanksgiving. I think it’s a true Christmas cactus, indicated by its leaves.
Thanksgiving cactus

This is another “Thanksgiving” cactus, blooming well before Thanksgiving, but not as soon as the one from my mom.

One of my friends told me that she doesn’t concern herself with light or temperature. To get her zygocactus to bloom, she withholds water for about a month, and then starts watering again. Matt Mattus of Growing With Plants says withholding water to induce bloom is a myth. But it works for my friend! Providing a sharp change in temperature by leaving the plants outside in early fall worked for me.

Lesson learned: There are a lot of variables involved in getting these plants to bloom. And it also varies from plant to plant. If one method doesn’t work for you, try a different method–or try a combination of methods.

Wintersun narcissus

This is a paperwhite narcissus called ‘Wintersun’.

The first time I grew paperwhite narcissus, my husband complained about the awful stink. Then I read in an old issue of the Old House Gardens newsletter: “The general rule is the more yellow in the flower (cups or petals) the better the scent (inherited from Narcissus tazetta orientalis) and the more white, the more ‘manure’ the scent (inherited from N. papyraceous).” Lesson learned:

Not all paperwhites are stinky! This year I’m growing ‘Wintersun’ which I purchased from Colorblends. The fragrance is delightful when the flowers first open, but as they age, the fragrance changes subtly and is not as pleasant. But I can’t smell them at all unless I bring my nose close. And I love the way they look!

Inspired by the words of Elizabeth Lawrence, “We can have flowers nearly every month of the year,” Carol of May Dreams Gardens started Garden Bloggers Bloom Day. On the 15th of every month, garden bloggers from all over the world publish what is currently blooming in their gardens. Check it out at May Dreams Gardens.

About the Author

Kathy Purdy is a colchicum evangelist, converting unsuspecting gardeners into colchicophiles. She would be delighted to speak to your group about colchicums or other gardening topics. Kathy’s been writing since 4th grade, gardening since high school, and blogging since 2002.

Now, the digging and dividing of perennials, the general autumn cleanup and the planting of spring bulbs are all an act of faith. One carries on before the altar of delayed gratification, until the ground freezes and you can’t do any more other than refill the bird feeder and gaze through the window, waiting for the snow. . . . Meanwhile, it helps to think of yourself as a pear tree or a tulip. You will blossom spectacularly in the spring, but only after the required period of chilling.

~Adrian Higgins in The Washington Post, November 6, 2013

Comments on this entry are closed.

Rho November 19, 2018, 1:32 pm

One in a north window at work gets no special treatment yet blooms like crazy from around Halloween until May every year. A young one at home didn’t do much last year even though it was outdoors all summer until just before freezing, but this year with the same treatment it’s blooming like crazy. Evidently the Zygo god (to borrow Lisa’s term) likes to keep us on our toes.

Jim November 18, 2018, 11:54 am

A few years back I did the hold-outside-until-the-first-frost thing with my Christmas cactus and they bloomed for the first time ever. I didn’t know about the narcissus and color. My wife has asthma and the paper whites had to leave, or she would. I’m now off to look at my leaves to see if I have Christmas or Thanksgiving cacti…

Lea's Menagerie November 17, 2018, 10:45 pm

I do not have any luck trying to force bulbs, but I admire those who do – yours is very pretty!
I am one of those who leave their cacti outside until the last minute, and yes it puts on buds immediately. Hoping to have blooms soon. Yours are lovely.
Hope you are having a great weekend!

Kathy Purdy November 18, 2018, 8:30 am

Perhaps you will give paperwhites a try in the future, Lea. They don’t need a chilling period.

Patricia Evans November 17, 2018, 9:12 pm

I have 10 zygocacti, a mix of Thanksgiving and Christmas (and one Easter which is doing poorly). I used to summer most of them outside, but as they have gotten bigger (and heavier), they spend all year indoors. I don’t do anything special and they all bloom on their own schedule. Most are setting buds now. I think cooler night temps will stimulate budding. Most of mine are desperate for repotting, but it’s a two person job for the larger ones, so I just keep putting it off. I on a mission to find a champagne colored one this year.

Kathy Purdy November 18, 2018, 8:29 am

Good luck on your mission, Patricia!

Colleen November 17, 2018, 10:01 am

I’ve had some luck getting mine to rebloom after withholding water, but it happened more consistently in my old house — the dining room was a little darker than everywhere else and that seemed to kick it into bloom. This house is much brighter, so no luck yet.

Lisa at Greenbow November 17, 2018, 7:15 am

I had one of the zygocati for years. All of a sudden it died. I haven’t been able to keep one alive since. I think the Zygo god has forsaken me.
I have never noticed narcissus stinking before but I rarely bring them inside.