WHAT HAS THE CHRISTMAS CACTUS GOT TO DO WITH CHRISTMAS?




The ‘Christmas Cactus’ or Schlumbergera truncata - as it is otherwise known - is a plant of singular deceit. Although its botanical name is derived from Frédéric Schlumberger (1823-1893) - the well known French collector of cacti and other succulents – the plant was neither discovered by him nor named by him. In fact, it received its name through another Frenchman - botanist and botanical author Charles Antoine Lemaire, a contemporary expert of the Cactaceae genus and colleague of Frédéric Schlumberger.

But it doesn't stop there! For all intents and purposes, the Christmas cacti has no ‘French connection’ whatsoever as it was actually discovered by Englishman Allan Cunningham (1791 –1839), who in his day was a well known botanist and explorer.

Between 1814 and 1816, and on the recommendation of Sir Joseph Banks - President of the Royal Society, founder of the Royal Horticultural Society, and unofficial director of Kew Botanic Gardens - Allan Cunningham was sent on an expedition to Brazil aboard the HMS Mermaid. Under the employ of the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, he was tasked to collect, document, and bring back to England any new and unknown plant species – particularly those that may have valuable economic importance. Amongst the many new species that were discovered on this - his first - journey, was of course an un-named, tree dwelling cactus.

This newly discovered species was unlike any cactus that had been seen before. It was a true, tropical rainforest epiphyte that - instead of growing as you would expect in the ground - was found high up in the tree canopy rooted onto tree branches.

Despite the high rainfall encountered within the Brazilian rainforest, water drained away quickly in the tree canopy, mimicking the drought conditions encountered by the more familiar members of the cacti family.

Not surprisingly, because of their specialised environment, these epiphytic cacti are quite different in appearance to that of their desert-dwelling cousins.

So why are they called Christmas cactus?

Move away from the seasonal winter cold of northern Europe, and the traditional Christmas tree isn’t always a suitable option. Instead, those living in the warmer climates of Africa, Australia, and some of the Latin American countries have developed their own version of the traditional tree.

They have developed their own ‘Christmas Cactus’ custom of decorating a decent sized, indigenous cactus the same as you would a ‘normal ‘Christmas tree. The Schlumbergera truncata is not that cactus.

Unsurprisingly, the Schlumbergera Christmas cactus – apart from flowering over the Christmas period – has nothing to do with either the Christmas tradition or the story of Christ’s birth.

Its common name derives only from its ability to flower at the right time, and so I apologise to anyone who has been misled by implied marketing. However in all fairness, it isn’t really the plants fault – it’s all down to the French, or is it?

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