The Christmas Cactus Business
by Mary Jasch
Have any luck finding hot new Christmas cactus just off the breeding assembly line?
Well, guess what. No breeders of this South American holiday bloomer exist in the United States. They reside in Europe, mostly Denmark and Holland. A mystery for this writer in a country chock full of horticultural wizardry and industry.
A handful of wholesale growers who sell rooted cuttings and plants to mostly brokers that resell to retail greenhouses, nurseries and big box stores are scattered around the country – some reluctant to talk about the obscure, almost cultish, Christmas cactus.
Not so with grower Chet Peckett, owner of Pecketts Inc. of Apopka, Florida, who grows Christmas cactus, Schumbergera, and Spathiphyllum.
Says Peckett: “It’s a niche specialty crop. It’s been around for a hundred years. People say, ‘Oh yeah, my grandmother had one of these.’ The Schlumbergera takes me a year to grow it. It’s very sensitive to bloom it. If you’re very lucky, maybe you’ll get three weeks out of it (the flowers). If it gets too dry, too hot, too cold, the blooms fall off. These crazy people like it. It’s just amazing to me. I don’t know why.”
Canada once had breeders, but most or all have gotten out of it. There’s a lot of labor in it for such a niche market, says Peckett. Years ago, Barnell Larry Cobia, “the grandfather of all Christmas cactus in the world” and a dedicated man with a lot of patience, did a lot of breeding in Florida for almost 50 years.
“He could breed them,” says Peckett. “It’s a real small flower and, like a lot of things, it takes a long time. All the perennial and annual breeding programs – that’s a big deal because it’s a huge market, whereas Christmas cactus is a tiny ‘small window’ market.” Peckett sold a million plants to brokers this year within five weeks. “As bad as this crazy economy is, and we all know it’s not good, we sold out of them. We grow everything from a 2-inch pot to 10-inch baskets.”
Schlumbergera breeders are in Europe, he says, because there are more generational breeders and growers there than in America. “We just haven’t been here long enough to have that. For some reason Larry Cobia was just into it. He bred them, got into research and development. He patented them. The Europeans got into it. They took some of his plants and cross-bred them and came up with a lot of their own. We don’t do any breeding here.”
Every year Peckett trials a few Schlumbergera varieties for Holland breeders. In some ways, the plant is easy to grow and in other ways (the reasons why growers stop growing them), labor intensive. In Florida, this short day plant requires being “black clothed,” among other efforts to get it to set bud.
Says Peckett: “We do a lot of things to get them to bloom. But most importantly we have to see if they can handle the heat in the summer here because it’s so hot.” Plus, the desirable attributes of European varieties – different and good colors, good branching capabilities, recurve on the flower – are all evaluated to determine if they’ll reproduce here.
But some companies are secretive about what’s new, exactly what and how many they grow – and even deny they are experts. "It’s because they don’t want the whole world growing Schlumergera," chuckles Peckett. “But don’t worry. The whole world ain’t growing them because they take too long, there’s too much labor and most of the people that are growing spring crops and other things up north don’t want to grow Christmas cactus. There must be 10,000% more poinsettias grown that Christmas cactus. It’s just a small, little, niche market and not that many people want to mess with it, so it’s good for us.”
In Florida, Peckett tells people that after blooming, put the plant out under a shade tree “and never even look at it again until next December. Don’t even water it. It’ll wilt and it’ll turn purple and when it rains it’ll get better again and the next thing people go out there and go, ‘Golly, the crazy thing is starting to flower’ and they get very excited, which is great. I wish we could get more people excited about gardening in general.”
So what is the Schlumbergera forecast?
“It’s never going to be a huge, huge thing but it’s got a little place in the marketplace. You have lots of colors. We’re not sophisticated yet enough to say this or that variety (like where you’ve got a little club and last year you had a yellow one and this year you’ll get a pink one). They do that in Europe where you have collectors and oddball things but that’s a hobbyist market. That market’s not as intentionally large as (I don’t like to say) the mass market, but that’s where the market is.”
Anyone seen any upright flowers? They were from Cobia’s collectors series.
What are Peckett’s favorites? If he names a variety, he says it won’t make a difference to me. He’s right. “I like the yellows and some of the new reds. We label them by colors but we don’t label them by variety anymore because it was becoming too much of a headache for people.”
Want to grow Schlumbergera as a house plant year round? Put it outside in the shade after frost and only water if it doesn’t rain for a while. Schlumbergera sets bud at about 40 degrees, so leave it outside until just before frost.
Says Peckett: “Although you won’t see it, feel the bud on the end inside the leaf. If you bring it in in October, it’s already initiated so it’ll continue to grow and bloom. This plant is so durable, you can take a leaf section (that’s how we propagate it) and stick it in the soil in spring and summer. You can twist it off and throw it on the ground and it’ll lay there for months an then it’ll bloom. It’s an extremely interesting plant in that regard.”
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published December 15, 2010