Orchid cactus delivers long-lasting colour

Gardeners often keep plants around that put on fleeting but spectacular displays of bloom only once a year. That means caring for the plants all year long and waiting for the beautiful first blooms to open.

Some bloom at the end of the long winter seasons and offer a dose of spring tonic.

One example is the orchid cactus, a plant closely related to the more common Christmas cactus. The plant is propagated by breaking off a few of the flat-leafed, lobed stems from a parent plant and inserting them into a pot of soilless mix.

Since all cacti perform well in light, well-drained soil, I always add a bit of sand to the cactus mix, although sometimes I plant into pure soilless mix and add the sand to the soil surface. Eventually the sand makes its way down into the soil as an amendment.

The slips root quickly and before long, the fast growing stems will cascade over the edge of the pot. In a year, these stems will produce blooms.

The branches originally start up-right but as they lengthen, they become pendulous. As the stems elongate, side branches develop along the original stems. About half a dozen slips planted into a six-inch pot will produce a nice specimen plant.

An orchid cactus prefers bright light, but like the Christmas cactus, it does not like a lot of direct sun or hot, mid-day sun.

During the winter months, the soil should be kept on the dry side, but it should never be allowed to dry out completely as it may prevent them from blooming.

Most cacti like to be pot bound, so orchid cacti must be somewhat root bound before they will bloom.

The attractive, mid-green leaves will maintain their healthy appearance if the plant is fertilized a couple of times in early spring and again after it blooms.

Like the Christmas cactus, the orchid cactus prefers cool temperatures in the winter, which encourages the setting of buds. It is photosensitive and requires uninterrupted darkness at night to set buds.

The first buds open around the beginning of May and the blooms are bright red and funnel-shaped. Each bloom lasts for several days and buds are produced over a three to four week period.

A mature plant with lots of branches may bloom for a month.

The orchid cactus, like its cousin, the Christmas cactus, can be moved outdoors for the summer in a location that receives filtered sunlight, but the plant must be moved back indoors before fall frost threatens.

Albert Parsons has a diploma in horticulture from Guelph University. He operates a garden design/landscape consultation business from his home in Minnedosa, Man. Contact: countrygarden@producer.com.