Q: Last summer, I put two of my Christmas cactus plants on my covered deck thinking the outdoor air would be a treat for them. In less than an hour, I lost all but one stem of one plant and tried desperately to nurse the other back to health. They both survived, but the larger, fuller and healthier of the two has taken on a strange appearance. Although it blossomed around the holidays of 2011 and had bright, vibrant green leaves, the plant is a much duller green, and the last leaf on each stem has turned a reddish-purple color. What have I done wrong, and how can I restore the plant to its original green, if that’s possible? The smaller of the two plants is still the vibrant green. I’ve never witnessed a holiday cactus do this.
A: Any of this group of epiphytic (jungle) cactuses sunburn easily. They are not desert cactus but jungle cactus and grow high in the treetops in a moist, semi-shaded jungle climate in their natural habitat, and we sometimes forget this. They need partial shade, superior drainage, warm but not hot temperatures, and medium to high humidity. I think you may have sunburned your plants. They love being out in the great breezy outdoors during the summer, but sometimes we forget how much light differs from sunny indoor window sites to direct, intense, unobstructed summer sun and no window glass.
In summer, we move houseplants outside too fast. Houseplants need to be slowly acclimated to outdoor living no matter how sunny your winter growing area may be, and this takes at least a week or two. But remember, most sun-damaged cactuses can be brought back to a near-normal color by reducing direct sunlight. But there can be other reasons for the discoloration, as well. Some plants will need to be repotted to improve the drainage, and some simply need a more regular fertilizing schedule. Could this apply to your plants?
All is not lost — the plants are not completely lost. Small pieces of this plant that break off can be easily rooted, and the tiny plants will even bloom at a very early age.
Q: You keep talking about needing to tell if you have male or female holly bushes because if you want to have berries, you need one of each — I think I need help! I’ve had my holly bushes for many years and have yet to see a single berry. I know they’re not getting eaten before I see them, so now I guess I must have one gender/kind of holly bush — but I’m not a naturalist, so how do I tell? Please make it simple! If they are all female, I’ll need a male; if they’re male, I need a female — so how can I avoid a mistake and buy the right kind? I forgot to mention that they both bloom — so I’m guessing they are both female.
A: So you think if they bloom, it’s sure to be a female? Then you could be in for a surprise! You need at least one male holly within a few hundred feet to produce berries — it could even be in a neighbor’s yard down the street. Pollen is carried by insects or wind from plant to plant.
Every gardener has just one chance every year to tell the sex. In the spring (when both male and female holly blooms), there is the one opportunity of the year to differentiate and tell which are the male plants and which are the f
emale. Look at the very center of the tiny flower. All holly flowers, whether male or female, have four petals, but the male’s flower has four stamens in the center, and the female’s flower has a pronounced “bump” in the center. One caution — even a good nursery can lose a tag on a holly bush and make a mistake in filling your order.
North Shore Gardener by Barbara Barger of Beverly is a feature of Friday’s Living section. Reach Barbara by email at email@example.com or write to her c/o Gloucester Daily Times, 36 Whittemore St., Gloucester, MA 01930. Previous North Shore Gardener columns can be found at www.nsgardener.com.