New Mexico Chiles

serrano-peppers pixabay.com

Serrano peppers Pixabay.com

Twenty one varieties of New Mexico chile peppers, Capsicum annuum, will be  on sale on May 18-19 at the CSU Master Gardener Plant Sale held at Denver’s Harvard Gulch Park.  Grown from the University of New Mexico’s Chile Pepper Institute’s (CPI) seeds, the fruits range from mild and flavorful to bold, smoky and hot.

poblano

Poblano peppers New Mexico State University Chili Pepper Institute

The plants will mature in late summer and grow well in Colorado conditions. Mild selections include ‘Conquisstador’ (nonpungent, smooth fruit, strong vines) and ‘Trick or Treat’ (no heat with habanero flavor). ‘NuMex Heritage 6-4’ (award winning fruit, great for green chili), ‘NuMex Joe. E. Parker’ (high yield, excellent for red and green chili) and ‘NuMex Sandia Select’ (high heat level) are among the hot cultivars we’ll have on hand. Find the complete plant list here.

Read on to learn more about New Mexico chile origins, research and growing techniques.

Chiles are native to South America, where they are perennial shrubs. In the United States, with few exceptions such as southern California and parts of Florida and Texas, the plants are grown as annuals. It has been said that New Mexico is to chile peppers what Napa Valley is to wine grapes. The area’s arid climate, hot summers and soil make chile growing conditions ideal. Given Colorado’s similar conditions, the plants grow well here, too.

Scoville_Wilbur_Prof_med

Wilbur Scoville, 1865-1942 New Mexico State University Chile Pepper Institute

Heat and flavor of chile varieties vary greatly and have been studied extensively.  In 1912, mild-mannered appearing Wilbur Scoville developed a system for measuring the feisty flavor of chiles that is still in use today.

According to the CPI, “The heat level of a chile pepper is expressed in Scoville Heat Units (SHU). Scoville Heat Units are intended for comparison only because heat levels can fluctuate greatly from location, and even from pod to pod on the same plant. Chile peppers range in heat from 0 SHU (Bell Pepper) to more than 2,000,000 SHU (Trindad Moruga Scorpion).”

Chile peppers contain chemical compounds called capsaicinoids.  When ingested, capsaicinoids send a message to our brains that the pepper is hot. In large doses capsaicin can burn and irritate humans and mammals. As birds do not have the brain receptors to register this heat sensation, they feel none of the adverse effects of the compound. Because of this, birds are responsible for spreading wild pepper seeds.

The seeds are often, but erroneously, touted as the hottest part of the pepper. In reality, the white flesh near the seeds contain the most capsaicin. When cooking with peppers, leave or remove the ribs depending on your sensitivity.

Beyond heat, chiles offer a wide range of complex flavors. Dr Paul Bosland of the CPI identified five heat profile components. Chile lovers have surely experienced these sensations:

  • Development: Is the heat sensation felt immediately or 5, 15 or 30 seconds later?
  • Duration: How long does the heat linger?
  • Location: Where is the heat sensation felt? Lips, front of mouth, tip of tongue, throat?
  • Feeling: Is it a pin-prick sensation or an overall sensation or does it coat the area?
  • Intensity: Measured by Scoville Heat Units and commonly called mild, medium or hot fruit.

If you’re eager to plant your chiles right now, a word of caution. Plants should be hardened off after the danger of frost by exposing them to outdoor temperatures for longer periods of time daily. Plant in the ground when daytime temperatures hover around 70 degrees and over night temperatures are reliably above 55 degrees.

Before planting, incorporate compost to fortify the soil. Throughout the season, use a balanced fertilizer (5-10-5 or 10-10-10).  Watch for the inevitable dry spells  as plants need at least 2 inches of moisture a week, especially after fruit sets. Night time temperature is critical for flowers to set and is ideally between 65-80 degrees.

What’s your favorite chile pepper? Please share in the comments!

For more information:

Plant Talk Colorado: Chile Peppers

Growing Colorado Peppers, Colorado Farm to Table/Colorado State University

“What’s So Hot About Chili Peppers” Smithsonian Magazine, April 2009

Posted by Linda McDonnell, a Denver County Master Gardener

 

 

Advertisements

Heirloom and Modern Tomatoes at CSU’s Master Gardener Plant Sale

The 14th annual CSU Master Gardener plant sale fundraiser will take place at Denver’s Harvard Gulch Park, 888 E Iliff Avenue (at Emerson) on Saturday, May 18 from 8 am to 3 pm and Sunday May 19 from 10am to 3pm or till sold out.

In preparation for the sale, Denver Master Gardeners have been busy nurturing over 7200 fruit and vegetable plants from seed in the City of Denver’s City Park Greenhouse. When the plants make their debut you’ll find a dizzying selection of strong, healthy specimens for your summer garden. Herbs, annuals and perennials round out the offerings.

The tomato plants are definitely one of the stars of the show – forty seven varieties in all – including heirloom and modern (hybrid) cultivars.

What differentiates a heirloom from a modern tomato?

Horticulturists define heirloom seeds as those that are “open pollinated” by  insects, birds, wind or other natural means and retain the same traits from generation to generation. Seedlings will produce the same size and color fruit on a plant with the same growth habit and the same flavor from one generation to the next.

Depending on the variety, heirloom tomatoes can be red, purple, green, yellow, speckled or bi-colored. The fruit can have smooth skin but many varieties have a beautiful ribbed surface. Popular indeterminate (produce fruit throughout the season after maturity) heirlooms available at the sale include:

 

‘Brandywine Red’ – a large, flavorful red-pink beefsteak fruit which matures in 90 days.

‘Purple Cherokee’ – pink-purple fruit with a rich, sweet flavor. Excellent in salads and on sandwiches. Matures in 80-90 days.

‘San Marzano’ – Favored by Italian cooks for a meaty, complex, sweet flavor which is especially delicious on pizza and in sauces. Matures in 85-90 days.

‘Aunt Ruby’s German Green’ – Large (up to 1 lb!) green fruit with a strong, sweet fruity flavor. A frequent taste test winner which slices especially well. Matures in 85 days.

Many experts define heirloom seeds as those introduced prior to 1950. By contrast, modern (hybrid) varieties were introduced to the market after World War II for the purpose of improving disease resistance and increasing shelf life and yields. The modern varieties became popular because the home gardener could avoid battling tomato diseases and commercial growers could count on reliable, cost effective crops.

If you are thinking that modern tomatoes lack classic, true tomato taste, you are not alone. Some hybrids sacrifice flavor for other traits. However, in fairness, taste is highly subjective!  

Modern varieties are popular taste-pleasers and are definitely worth adding to your garden. We’ve grown ten hybrid cultivars including two crowd pleasing indeterminate cherry varieties.

‘Cherry Sun Gold’ – Prolific golden-orange cherry-sized fruit with high sugar content. A frequent taste test winner which can be grown in a large pot. Matures in 70 days. Kids eat ‘em like candy!

‘Chocolate Cherry’ – Clusters of 1” port wine fruit with a rich, tangy flavor. A productive plant which matures in 70 days.

As Plant Sale Chair Maureen Horton explained here, two heirloom marriage tomatoes ‘Cherokee Carbon’ and ‘Genuwine’ are new this year. Heirloom marriage tomatoes are hybrids that cross two heirloom varieties to produce a tomato with the best qualities of each heirloom.

Truly the “best” tomatoes are the ones you enjoy the most and thrive in your garden. It’s also fun to introduce a new variety to your garden and palette. If you join us for the sale, master gardeners will help you make your selection and share tips for success.

For more information:

www.facebook.com/CSUDenverhort

CSU Fact Sheet: Recognizing Tomato Problems

Written by Linda McDonnell, a Denver County Master Gardener

Colorado Blueberries: A Success Story

Blueberries grown in peat moss bales

Make no mistake about it, blueberry plants want what Colorado’s soils can’t deliver – high acidity. Attempts to grow them in our alkaline soil will frustrate the most accomplished gardener. However, research at Colorado State University found the plants can be grown successfully in this region when planted directly into a bale of peat moss, which has been tucked into the garden bed. The process is described in detail here.

Five years ago, armed with bales of peat, solid research and determination, Denver Master Gardener Jill Fielder decided to add blueberries to her raised beds. Given the proper environment, regular care and careful plant selection, she’s been enjoying berries every summer since.

According to Jill, “Blueberries are both insect and wind pollinated and the bees love ours. Most experts believe that blueberries set great yields when there’s cross pollination with another variety that flowers at the same time, so we have a couple different cultivars.” Northcountry Blue (small, flavorful berries, upright habit), Bluegold, (productive with a somewhat sprawling habit) and Bluecrop (large berries, the newest addition) are 3.5′ to 4.5′ feet tall and doing well. Northblue didn’t produce well and was replaced.

Spring buds

Plants were purchased on-line from reputable growers and were planted in the spring. The plants are feed monthly during the growing season with a water soluble fertilizer for acid-loving plants. A drip irrigation system provides moisture.

Jill’s raised beds are in a protected area of her yard, bordered by a fence and garage so she has not covered or wrapped the plants in the winter. However, winter protection is recommended in less protected areas. Late in the winter, plants are trimmed to remove dead or damaged wood and maintain shape.

If you’re looking for a new gardening challenge and can commit to the specific needs of these plants, why not give them a try?

Posted by Linda McDonnell, a Denver Master Gardener, with thanks to Jill Fielder for supplying inspiration and photos.

 

 

 

Meet the Garden Squad

Meet the Garden Squad is a new blog feature and a way to get better acquainted with some of our CSU Extension Master Gardener volunteers.

Maureen Horton has volunteered with CSU Extension as a Master Gardener since 1999. (Photo credit: Maureen Horton)

Meet Maureen Horton

The first CSU Master Gardener Plant Sale was a small community event on a Saturday in May. Only a few hands planted seeds for the 1400 plants available that year.

Over the last 14 years, the fundraiser for Denver Master Gardeners has grown to include 25 pairs of volunteer hands planting and tending more than 7,200 fruit and vegetable plants. The sale dates are May 18 and 19 this year.

While many things about the sale have changed, there’s something that’s remained the same: the work of Master Gardener Maureen Horton. She’s volunteered every year of the sale since the very beginning. She’s taken on the important task of coordinating all the planting in the City Park Greenhouse for the plant sale.

“I love filling the pots, planting the seeds, nurturing them and watching them grow,” she said. “It’s almost like a mother thing, nurturing them and then they go away, like your children.”

Maureen Horton (left) and a team of Master Gardener volunteers get to work in the City Park Greenhouse. (Photo credit: Merrill Kingsbury)

Maureen joined the Master Gardener program around 1999, but she’s been interested in nurturing plants since she was 5 or 6 years old. Her earliest gardening memories are of walking with her grandmother and uncle to tend the family garden plot in New Hampshire.

She recalls her grandma explaining the shoveling and watering to her, as well as harvesting lettuce and “lots and lots of potatoes.”

Now her Denver garden includes xeric plants, roses and her favorite ‘Purple Cherokee’ and ‘San Marzano’ tomatoes, among others.

Maureen’s approach to her own garden is all about nurturing, too. “Once I plant it, I nurture it to its maturity with care and the proper nutrients to grow the healthiest plant possible. It’s all about loving the soil and earth.”

She must really love the soil to commit to leading the greenhouse planting effort over six months each year, from November to sale day in May.

“We start in November and go through all the seeds we didn’t use the year before,” she explained. “We’re cost conscious and want to use all the seeds we can.”

Then the what-to-grow lists are compiled. One list includes the most popular plants from the previous sale. There’s another list of plants that are researched to find new, reliable varieties to add to the sale. Because of the heat and extreme weather from last summer, heat-tolerant tomatoes were researched for this year.

That list includes favorites like ‘Yellow Pear’, ‘Red Brandywine’, ‘Burbank Slicing’, ‘Costoluto Genovese’, ‘Great White’, ‘Green Giant’, ‘Marble Stripe’ and ‘Purple Calabash’.

In addition, two new heirloom marriage tomatoes are now growing for the sale: ‘Cherokee Carbon’ and ‘Genuwine’. Heirloom marriage tomatoes are hybrids that cross two heirloom varieties to produce a tomato with the best qualities of each heirloom, plus the disease resistance and improved yields of a hybrid tomato.

Chile pepper research also figured into the list for this year’s sale. Of 23 pepper varieties, 21 are from New Mexico State University’s Chile Pepper Institute in Las Cruces.

“We’ve really babied those peppers,” Maureen said. “We’re introducing 18 new varieties of chile peppers to the sale.”

One of the new varieties is ‘NuMex Trick or Treat’. This pepper looks like a habanero and has all of the flavor of one, but with none of the heat. Another unusual pepper is ‘NuMex Twilight’ chile, an edible ornamental with peppers that mature in color from purple to yellow, then orange to red.

Once the seed order is placed, Maureen figures how many total flats of seeds to plant and the number of flats for each variety. Much of that is determined by how many benches the greenhouse allocates to the Master Gardeners for the sale.

In exchange for the space in the greenhouse and the use of a couple of their machines, the greenhouse also benefits from the help of Master Gardener volunteers.

Once the call for volunteers goes out, “people come running. It may be 40 degrees outside, but it’s 72 degrees in the greenhouse,” Maureen said. “It’s wonderful in there.”

While the planting is serious business, there’s always time for a few laughs. “We love it. There’s a lot of camaraderie and there’s a passion for it. Everyone works hard during their three hours to meet the goal of planting 40 flats.”

Once planting is complete, there’s twice weekly maintenance needed right up to the time the plants leave the greenhouse headed for the sale.

Last year the plant sale raised $36,000 to support Master Gardener programs in the community. More than half of that total came from selling the plants grown in the greenhouse.

It’s easy to imagine a high level of stress goes with the responsibility of nurturing more than 7,000 plants for the biggest fundraising event of the year.

“From doing it all these years, there’s not much stress,” said Maureen. “You have to roll with the punches. The only stress is if a flat of seeds doesn’t come up.”

By Jodi Torpey
Master Gardener volunteer since 2005

How Long Will Seeds Last?


Do you have a stash of old seed packets tucked away with your gardening gear, thrown on a shelf in the garage or mingling with this-and-that in a drawer? I bet you do. Do they hold the promise of healthy plants or are they past their prime?

Seed packets have a sell-by date, but depending on the seed type and the storage, they can be viable far longer.

According to Colorado State University, flower and vegetable seeds can be stored at room temperature for a year without significant loss of germination. Given optimal dry and cool conditions, some seeds can be viable for up to ten years. Colorado’s semi-arid climate is advantageous for seed saving as moisture shortens seed’s shelf life. This CSU publication contains details on seed saving, the longevity of common plant seeds and germination rates.

If you want to know if your past season’s seeds are worth planting, you can easily find out by doing a germination test. Count out 10, 20, or 30 seeds and spread them on several layers of moistened paper towels. Carefully roll them in the paper so the seeds stay separated. Place the roll in a plastic bag and store in a warm spot without direct sunlight, such as the top of the refrigerator.

Check your seeds for signs of sprouting after 2-3 days and daily after that for about two weeks, keeping the towels moist. After that time, divide the number of sprouted seeds by the number you started with and you have the germination rate. You’ll likely find that the rate is reduced, but the seed is still useful if you plant more seed than you need, using the germination rate as a planting guide.

If few seeds sprout, they are too old and not worth saving. By doing the test, you’ll avoid being disappointed by poorly performing plants in the garden.

February is a great time to take stock of your seed stash and purchase what you need for the year. And if you have some still-good seed you don’t want, consider sharing them with a gardening friend or donating them to a school or community garden.

Image: Pixabay.com

Written by: Linda McDonnell, Denver County Master Gardener

Meet the DMG Garden Squad

Meet the DMG Garden Squad is a new blog feature and a way to get better acquainted with some of our dedicated volunteers.

Jan Appelbaum has volunteered with CSU Extension Master Gardeners since 2004.

Meet Jan Appelbaum

Most Master Gardeners know the value of making their own compost. But Jan Appelbaum discovered there’s more to compost than a good soil amendment.

“My best success last year grew out of the compost bin. There were three or four tomato varieties that grew out of the compost, and they were prolific.” She harvested hundreds of tomatoes from tomato seeds that decided to sprout and grow on their own.

Jan’s tomatoes planted themselves in the compost bin. (Photos by Jan Appelbaum)

Jan joined the CSU Extension Colorado Master Gardener (CMG) program in 2004, after retiring from a 30-year teaching career in Douglas County. She thought the program would be a good way to provide some structured activity to fill her time.

When she started, the Denver Master Gardeners’ office was located downtown in the Wellington Webb Building. Those were the “good old days” when the pace was quite a bit slower.

“We have the ability to get information faster now, almost instantaneously, and we reach more people now,” Jan said. “But sometimes slow is better, too.”

One of her favorite volunteer activities is interviewing Master Gardener apprentices because there are many different ages, levels of enthusiasm for gardening and levels of expertise. “It’s fun and interesting to hear why people want to be trained to be a master gardener,” she said.

Jan also volunteers as part of the Community Collaborative Rain, Hail and Snow Network (CoCoRaHS) to track precipitation in all 50 states, Canada and the Bahamas. As a CoCoRaHS volunteer, she measures daily precipitation in her yard and keeps track of the results.

She also volunteers at the annual spring plant sale and helps answer questions at the farmer’s market. One of the advantages of volunteering alongside other Denver Master Gardeners is the collaborative spirit. “At the Master Gardener booth, four brains are better than one.”

The farmer’s market is a valuable and sometimes entertaining outreach opportunity. “It’s always fun when people come up to ask a question but have already made up their mind. Or when people from out of town say ‘That’s not how we do it in Michigan.’ But most people appreciate the help we can give.”

Jan grew up in Connecticut where she admits it was easier to garden. She helped in her family’s huge vegetable garden, but had to learn how to garden in a more challenging environment when she moved to Colorado in 1972.

Her advice to new gardeners, and those new to gardening here, is to be patient and learn by doing.

Some of that advice is based on her own early planting efforts. She recalled planting a miniature Japanese maple tree and giving it too much love.

“I thought it needed water because the leaves were curled, and I killed it by overwatering. Eventually I found out they don’t like to have their roots too wet.”

Jan said she’s grateful for the Master Gardener experience because it’s broadened her gardening knowledge. She thinks everyone who gardens should go through the Master Gardener training, too.

“Gardening for me is very therapeutic,” she said. “It helps connect us with the soil and Mother Nature. Having a sense of nature is getting harder and harder to do in the city, but I’m encouraged to see there are more people getting into gardening now.”

By Jodi Torpey
Denver Master Gardener volunteer since 2005

Why Leaves Linger

Here we are in mid-January and  most deciduous trees and shrubs (excluding conifers) have shed their leaves. But long after the last frost and through a couple of modest snow storms, there are still trees around the front range with leaves that are stubbornly hanging on, as you can see from the photos I took in my neighborhood last week.

Marcescence is the retention of dried, dead leaves during the winter. Typically, as woody plants prepare to shed their leaves in the fall, cells at the junction of the twig and the leaf petiole (stem) release enzymes and form an abscission layer, which aids in the separation of the leaf. Marcescent leaves do not develop this thin-walled cell layer and therefore, do not drop readily.

Early severe cold weather can cause marcescence as the development of the abscission layer is halted and the leaves do not release. Front range gardeners will recall an extreme case in November 2014 when an exceedingly mild fall was interrupted by a one day temperature plunge from a high of 58 degrees to a low of 16 degrees. The result was subsequent damage and loss of many hardwood plants the following season and beyond.

Some plants are more apt to hold leaves longer, including several oak species, hazelnuts, American lindens and beech trees.  According to Jim Finley of Pennsylvania State University, “Marcescent leaves are often more common with smaller trees or more apparent on lower branches of larger trees, which in forest conditions would be growing beneath taller trees where the reduced sunlight might slow the abscission process.”  Lower leaves are therefore exposed to cooler temperatures, resulting in leaf retention. It should be noted that upper leaves can also exhibit marcescence.

Marcescent leaves eventually drop, either due to wind, snow load or the push of new spring growth. Under normal circumstances, marscence does not damage trees.

References:

“Winter Leaves that Hang On”, Jim Finley, Department of Ecosystem Science and Management, Pennsylvania State University.

Written by Linda McDonnell, a Denver County Master Gardener

Tips For Caring For Your Cut Christmas Tree

If a real Christmas tree is a beloved tradition in your home, you’ll find these tips for its care helpful. Following these research-based findings will help your tree stay fresh and aromatic through the season. Some may surprise you.

First and foremost, check the water level daily. The ideal stand will hold at least a quart of water per inch of the stem’s diameter. A gallon capacity stand is generally sufficient. Be sure the cut end of the trunk is always submerged in water.  

Clean, plain water is best; water temperature will not effect absorption. Additives such as aspirin, floral preservatives, water-holding gels, sugar, bleach and soda are not beneficial and some can even retard freshness.

Anti-transpirants or wilt-reducing products have also not been found to significantly reduce moisture loss. 

Take care when placing your tree in the stand. The outer layer of the trunk is important to water absorption, so avoid “shaving”  or scarring the bark to make it fit into the stand.  (I’ve been guilty of this!) 

Cooler temperatures will help the tree stay fresh. Lowering the thermostat and placing the tree out of direct sunlight is recommended.

A well-cared for cut tree should remain fresh for three to four weeks. Always monitor your tree for excessively dry needles, a sure sign that the tree should be discarded.

At the end of the season many communities offer free tree recycling programs. Denver residents can find information on the 2019 Treecycle program here.

Reference:  “Caring for Your Cut Christmas Tree” Rick Bates, Department of Horticulture, Pennsylvania State University.

 Image: Garreth Broesche, Unsplash.com

Written by: Linda McDonnell, Denver County Master Gardener

How Vanilla Gets to Your Kitchen

Will you be doing holiday baking this season? If so, chances are your recipes will include vanilla, an often overlooked kitchen staple, with a name that can be synonymous with bland or uninteresting.  But how vanilla gets to our pantry shelves is really quite a feat, in fact, it is anything but vanilla.

Pure vanilla extract is derived from the orchid Vanilla planifolia, a rambling, vigorous vine which grows on tree trunks, can reach 75′ and is native to Mexico and Central America. The plant’s fragrant, yellow to green flowers bloom for exactly one day and must be pollinated while in full bloom in order to produce a vanilla bean. Adding to the pollination complexity, in the wild, each flower has less than a 1% chance of being visited by the plant-specific pollinator, the stingless bee of the genus Melapona. Given these odds, commercial vanilla producers employ a hand pollination technique. Manual pollination was first attempted in the 1840’s by a clever twelve year old boy who worked in vanilla fields on the island of Réunion, east of Madagascar. Hundreds of years later, essentially the same labor-intensive process is still used at commercial plantations.

The flowers are self fertile – containing both male and female parts. The pollination process involves moving pollen from the flower’s anther to the stigma with a toothpick or finger. If successful, in 5-9 months the flower will produce a green bean-like fruit which will be picked and fermented before becoming the dark brown, prized vanilla pod. Once the pods are dried, they are steeped in an alcohol and water mixture to create the extract we bake with and enjoy as an aromatic in perfumes and household products. This video shows the pollination process – not a job for unsteady hands! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YOAi2WeLsCs

A few more vanilla facts:

  • The hand pollination process accounts for 40% of the production cost of vanilla, which is why vanilla is so pricey.
  • The FDA has strict standards for vanilla production.  A gallon of extract must contain more than 13 ounces of ground vanilla beans and have at least 35% alcohol.
  • Since the vanilla plant is not a legume, the” beans”  are not beans at all. They are actually pods. 
  • Spiders don’t like vanilla, so the pods can be used to keep these pests away.
  • Vanillin is an essential compound in vanilla. Surprisingly, it is also found in potatoes.
  • Artificial vanilla is created in a laboratory with by-products of the paper industry. That sure doesn’t sound tasty!

Wishing you a happy holiday season, filled with joy, laughter and new found respect for that humble bottle of vanilla!

Credits:

Photos: Pixabay.com

University of Wisconsin Master Gardener Program, Vanilla planifolia

UW Lax.edu, Vanillaplanifolia

Written by Linda McDonnell, a Denver County Master Gardener

 

 

 

Help Your Christmas Cactus Bloom This Year

cropped-cropped-dscn05311.jpgWe’re sharing this post from 2016 again as a reminder that dark, cooler autumn nights are needed for Christmas Cactus to produce glorious blooms at the holidays. Given the right conditions now, you’ll enjoy beautiful flowers before too long. Read on for all the details!

Let me start by saying I’ve killed my share of houseplants, but one that has lived for close to three decades is the Zygocactus. Commercially, growers sell two slightly different plants as Zygocactus: the Thanksgiving cactus which has pointy edged branch segments and blooms around turkey time and the Christmas cactus which has rounded segments and blooms for its namesake. Care for the plants is essentially the same. Mine, shown above, is the Thanksgiving variety, Schlumbergera truncate.  Through periods of  neglect, inconsistent feeding and infrequent (twice maybe?) repotting, this plant keeps blooming prolifically year after year. I’ve rooted cuttings several times as gifts, but curiously, the offspring have rarely flowered in their new homes, where I might add, they get more TLC than they would living with me. This begs the question, what does this plant need to thrive and re-bloom? Here are the best tips from the experts and a few of my own observations.

  • It likes a bright, but not sunny location with temperatures that do not drop below 60 degrees.  Mine moves from indoors to an east facing screened porch from Memorial Day till Labor Day, or longer if the fall is mild like it was this year.
  •  It is a cactus which likes humidity. Unlike most cactus which prefer dry air, it hails from the tropical rainforests of South America and likes moist air. Sitting the plant on a pebble tray with water that does not touch the bottom of the pot can help, or living in a kitchen or bathroom would be ideal.
  •  It wants good drainage. If repotting, use standard, well draining potting soil. Water when it is dry just below the soil line, about once a week. I’ve  found  it amazingly forgiving if  when I forget to water. Over-watering will cause branches to rot, so more is not always better.
  • Spring and Summer are its active growth times. Prune when it is done blooming or in early summer to promote side branching. Cuttings can easily be rooted in water or soil. Adding houseplant food during the growth period helps. I have cut back branches to about six inches in the spring and the plant tripled in size by the end of the summer.
  • Here’s the key! It needs longer autumn nights to rebloom. Photoperiodism is a plant’s reaction to periods of light, similar to our circadian rhythm. Starting in mid to late September, the Zygocactus needs between nine and twelve hours of uninterrupted darkness each day in order to flower. Thanksgiving cactus take about six weeks of longer nights to sprout buds, Christmas cactus need about eight to twelve weeks.  This longer “sleep” period is the trickiest part of the reblooming process and why the porch, which is generally dark at night, works so well. Other options are to locate the plant in a similarly lit room, or  early each evening, cover it with a box or put it in a closet. Complete darkness insures maximum blooms. From experience, I’ve found that the occasional interruption of darkness reduces blooms, but will not thwart all flowers.
  • Stop the longer night process when buds emerge. The plant is now ready to flower. At this time, reduce watering slightly to promote brighter flower color.
  • Watch for bud drop. This could indicate you’ve reduced water too much. If the plant is new to you, it also could be reacting to a change in environment. Drafts or temperatures below 60 degrees may also be the culprit. I often see shriveled tiny buds at the end of the blooming cycle, as though the plant is  exhausted from the work it takes to flower for weeks on end. I found no science to support this notion, just my take on it!

Zygocactus are graceful, pretty plants, with or without blooms. Their showy, colorful holiday flowers are a beautiful treat at the end of the year. With a little extra care in the fall, they will regale you with splendid  holiday color.

Related posts:

Keeping the Ho Ho Ho in Holiday Plants

A Year in the Life of an Amaryllis

Text and Photo by Linda McDonnell, a Denver County Master Gardener