Cereus, or Not

Wednesday, March 07, 2012
The cutting rode home in the top of a ‘Pink Perfection’ camellia from a specialty nursery at the Show. Today the base of the cutting has begun to callus over, a sign it is ready to propagate. But the nomenclature geek in me was bothered by the plant’s name. I know the day-bloomers as orchid cactus (Disocactus) or epis, short for Epiphyllum hybrid, which is not actually what they are at all. After doing some research, I am not sure what this one is and not at all sure that I care since I know approximately how to grow it. Seems that the gardener has won out over the horticulturist! Flat, leaf-like stems are the hallmark of this entire bunch of flowering cacti that amuse and befuddle us. The plants are variously described as stiff, droopy, fragile, tough, beautiful, and hideous. Take your pick! They grow long stems that are scalloped, zig-zags, or sometimes simply wavy. Each is actually a different species but they all grow essentially the same, and thus the confusion about their proper names. The indented spots along the leaf give rise to furry areoles where spines and flowers emerge. Tubular flowers pop out day or night with spectacular petal arrangements. They are diverse: a few petals can form a single wheel or as many as 20 may be arranged in dense overlaps, some are perfect circles while others, more whimsical, seem to lack any symmetry. Petal edges can be entire, or smooth, but may be finely cut as if by Nature’s pinking shears. From white at night to hot pink and orange in the day-bloomers, this group of plants puts me in a good mood whenever I see them. Not at all difficult to grow, their biggest threats are overwatering, excess direct sun, and impatience – it can take up to five years for a cutting to bloom. By then they are often huge, sometimes ungainly plants that are a conversation piece even before the oddly elegant flowers appear to silence the doubters. My first brush with the group was at an overnight party for a porch full of Queen of the Night, or night-blooming cereus as they are called. This garden had four large pots along a sill that ran 20 feet with stems that entwined and overlapped to create a backdrop for about 50 flower buds ready to reward the wait. I arrived after a bartending shift, about 2:30 am, to join a dozen friends busily congratulating the gardener for creating this memorable night of Wow! He assured us that the Queens are easy to grow and he was right. I grow them in clay pots with very well-drained potting mix and wait to water until the soil feels dry up to the first knuckle before watering thoroughly again. In fact, if you use a rich potting mix, you’ll be well-advised to mix it half and half with perlite, sharp sand, or ground bark to avert root rot. There are several groups of plants that will root better if you allow their cut surfaces to heal over, or callus, for some period of time before putting them into a soil mix. Many succulent leaves like these, stems that ‘weep’ latex like some Euphorbias and Ficus, and even roses can benefit from this treatment. The cells on the cut edge will seal themselves up in air and begin to differentiate their structure in response to the wound. This change makes it easier for roots to form so the plant can survive. I’m preparing a loose mix of 1 part potting mix, 1 part sand, and 1 part ground bark screened to about ½ inch pieces. Fill little pots with this mix and water them well with a solution of Hormex Liquid Concentrate mixed 1 teaspoon in 1 gallon of water. Slip the cutting into damp soil, put it in a moderately-lit, warm place, and leave it alone for at least one week. I have a plant stand with an artificial light at the top and will leave this cutting on a lower shelf so it gets light but too much. After that, water weekly with the Hormex solution for one month. Then comes the test: will it begin to grow a bit, or at least reward me with a good green color and upright posture that indicates rooting has happened? I certainly hope so - and if you know her name, do let me know!
Go back to Propagate This!

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