Zygocactus, a member of the cactus family, is known in Europe and America as holiday cactus or Christmas cactus.
Zygocactus, a member of the cactus family, is known in Europe and America as holiday cactus or Christmas cactus. Contributed

Gardening: Cool season calls for the zygocactus

ONE of the fascinating things about plants is observing how they respond to changing seasons. In autumn, the onset of lower temperatures can cause some plants to flower.

One of these is zygocactus, a member of the cactus family.

In fact the name was changed a few years ago, and what we know as zygocactus should be called schlumbergera truncates.

In Europe and America they are known as holiday cactus or Christmas cactus because they flower in winter. Australian gardeners still tend to call them zygocactus, or "zygos".

You will almost certainly recognise the plant when you see it, with its distinctive fleshy, flattened, segmented leaves that grow in an arching formation from the base of the plant.

The unusually shaped, brightly coloured flowers emerge at the end of these leaves. The blooms range from white through pinks, lavender, coral, orange and red.

Although they are a member of the cactus family, they are not desert plants and they are not thorny. They come from the jungles of Brazil, a humid area with high rainfall, where they grow in trees, enjoying the gentle sunlight filtered through the canopy.

They are epiphytes, which means that they depend on other plants for support, but not for nutrition. You could experiment with replicating those conditions in your garden.

They are especially well suited to tall pots and hanging baskets as they do tend to hang rather than grow upright.

Zygocactus are incredibly hardy and easy to grow.

They need excellent drainage. Some experts suggest a cymbidium orchid or bromeliad mix; you could also use a premium potting mix, but not a cactus mix.

They are best in a partly shaded situation. Allow the plants to dry out a bit between waterings.

Use a slow-release fertiliser in spring and again in mid to late summer.

The flower buds start to form in about March. Because the flowering is triggered by longer nights, flowering can be impaired or stopped entirely if the plant receives artificial light at night in autumn.

So if your plant is not flowering, check to see whether it is too close to a street light. Lighter coloured flowers can get pink or purple colourings if the temperature drops suddenly when the buds are newly opened.

The stems are brittle and break easily. Be careful when you are moving your plants if they are in bud or flower as it is easy to damage them.

But it's not all bad news - they are very easy to grow from cutting.

If some pieces do fall off, just let them dry off a little, pop them in some potting mix and before too long you will have new plants.