SUNDAY GARDENING – Christmas Cactus

Contributed By Martha Plousos
The Christmas cactus (Schlumbergera, formerly known as Zygocactus), which is possibly the second most popular plant during the holiday season next to the highly celebrated Poinsettia, has been kept as a holiday plant since the 1800s and is normally available in bud or bloom from late October through December. As we prepare and look forward to the holiday season at the end of the year, these enchanting plants find their way into local retail shops and greenhouses in a variety of container sizes as well as hanging baskets. From the affordable 4” inch pot to the impressive 8” inch container, there is a Christmas cactus for all tastes. It takes tremendous willpower – if you’re a houseplant hobbyist – to refrain from filling up your home with holiday bloomers. These much-loved plants are a wonderful seasonal decoration on a mantle, windowsill or countertop in your home. They also make a beautiful holiday gift, especially to a host/hostess. As a potted plant, they can be enjoyed for their flowery displays during the holidays and as a striking foliage plant for the rest of the year.

A well cared for Christmas cactus can thrive for decades, many times outliving its caretaker. It’s not unheard of for this plant to be passed along from generation to generation as an heirloom because of its longevity. This easy-to-grow plant can bloom heavily year after year if the ideal conditions – simple ones – are met. If cared for properly, it will eventually develop into a huge specimen that will shower you with dozens of blossoms annually (huge specimens can easily produce hundreds of blooms between November and May).

Tell Me About It

Native to the South American jungles of Brazil, this tropical cactus is an epiphyte. An epiphyte is a plant that grows above the ground surface and uses other plants or objects for support (i.e.: it lives/grows on other plants). It’s important to note that this type of plant is not parasitic. Even though it is not rooted in the soil, it is independent of the plant it grows on. It uses the host plant as substrate but it manufactures its own food in the same way that any other plant does. An epiphyte will grow on the trunks, leaves or branches of its host plant. By growing on other plants, the position it reaches provides for better light or alleviates some of the competition for it.

Knowing where the ancestors of this cactus originate from is very important; it’s the first step in understanding what form of care is required. Cultural mistakes are made with this plant starting with its misleading name. When we think of ‘cactus’ we think of a plant that grows in hot, sandy deserts and is well-adapted to little precipitation in extremely arid environments because of its ability to conserve water in stems, leaves or roots. But the Christmas cactus is a native of humid jungles – a far cry from the Sahara-style wastelands – and would derive more pleasure from the droplets of a shower than the scorching rays of the sun.

A thriving, contented Christmas cactus will add some much-appreciated color to your home during the fall and winter season. And even though the Poinsettia is a truly lovely market leader, the Christmas cactus is also a holiday season’s box office smash. Its brilliant flowers are absolutely irresistible.

Unfortunately, ever year these plants die (or are discarded) unnecessarily because of the lack of knowledge or misinformation about their care. If you already have a Christmas cactus, are planning to buy one or end up receiving one as a gift this holiday season, don’t be left in the dark. With a little effort this truly charming and undemanding plant will reward you with beautiful blooms for many years to come. Together with that, with the right care, it will live long enough for you to bestow it to a loved one.

Here’s how to take care of it…

Proper Care Will Make This Plant An Heirloom

Since its natural home is a forest, the Christmas cactus has different growing needs than its relatives in the desert. Unlike the sand-lovers, this jungle dweller will require the same watering methods you practice on all other tropical plants you have in your home. This cactus is not quite as drought-tolerant as its desert kin, and although as a succulent it can store a reasonable quantity of water, it will nonetheless go limp if it’s excessively moisture-deprived. Keep the soil evenly moist at all times during the growing period and water thoroughly when the top half of the soil feels dry to the touch. Needless to say that the Christmas cactus, which is more of a tropical, requires the same humidity levels (50 – 60 percent) as all the other moisture-loving plants in your home to be comfortable.

The length of time between watering depends on your home’s environment – temperature, light, humidity, etc. It is especially important to water carefully while the plant is developing its flower buds. Over-watering can cause the buds to drop off the plant just as they are getting ready to bloom – an incredibly frustrating experience! Likewise, chronic lack of water can also cause buds and flowers in full bloom to drop prematurely.

After the flowers have faded, allow the plant to have a much-needed rest by minimizing water for about 6 weeks. During this rest period, place your plant – if possible – in a cooler area and don’t fret if it loses a few leaves or appears weak. Plants expend a lot of energy in flower development and earn the right to look a little worn-out when the glitzy exhibit is over. After a few weeks of rest, new growth will appear and you can resume regular watering. During the spring and summer seasons keep the soil evenly moist (I know it’s a juggling act) and treat your plant like a regular houseplant. When the fall season arrives, give the cactus enough water to keep it from shriveling during the flower bud formation; the soil should barely be moist. Increase water to normal levels while the plant is flowering, again being careful not to over or under water.

A Christmas cactus can adapt to low light but you will have a happier, healthier and more prolific bloomer if you place it in bright indirect light. Close to a window or under a skylight are both prime locations for this cactus. Strong, direct sunlight can be damaging, especially during the hotter months of the year. While a little morning sun in an eastern location is welcomed, the hot sun of a south-facing window is not. Too much direct sunlight can burn the leaves, stunt growth or cause the plant to droop miserably. The leaves may also turn red if exposed to excessive light – telltale signs of a sun burn!

When spring arrives – and there is no more danger of frost – you can place your plant outside for a much-appreciated summer vacation. Find a shady or semi-shady location on your porch or in your garden. Outdoors, the Christmas cactus must be protected from the sun between May and September. Your Christmas cactus can be left outside until it produces blooms in the fall. Leaving your plant outside during cool temperatures between 55F/12C and 60F/15C degrees for about 6 weeks will encourage it to bloom. Bring the plant indoors at night when the temperature is frosty but place it back outdoors until the daytime temperatures are also too bitter for the plant to bear. By doing the ‘night in’ and ‘day out’ shuffle, you will encourage the Christmas cactus to bloom as well as get it acclimatized to the indoors gradually.

(Note: If your plant does spend the summer outdoors, don’t wait too far into the fall season to bring it back inside. If you delay and your plant’s flower buds are quite developed, you risk losing some or all of them if the plant is moved. Moving a Christmas cactus when the buds are in formation is one of the main reasons that buds and flowers drop off. The same advice applies to a Christmas cactus that stays indoors all year round. Do not move it to another location in your home once you notice flower buds developing. During this critical period, relocating the plant will bring on catastrophic results)

A well-draining soil is a must for a Christmas cactus, which is very susceptible to rot. Mix your own formula or purchase one specific to succulent plants if you prefer to use commercially-packaged soil. If your plant dries out or wilts frequently, it’s probably time to repot into a larger container, although this chore should be limited to the spring season after the flower exhibit is over and the cactus has had its essential rest period. You may choose to also prune your plant when you repot, which will encourage your cactus to branch out. You can remove segments from each stem by pinching them off with your fingers or by using a sharp knife. The sections that you remove can be rooted to produce new plants!

From April to September (the standard active growing season for houseplants) feed your plant lightly (every 2 – 3 weeks; I feed only once a month) with an all purpose liquid fertilizer until flower buds begin to form. Resume feeding in spring, when new growth appears after the rest period. (Do not feed while the plant is flowering.)

If you take proper care of your Christmas cactus by providing it with the simple care listed above, it will thrive. In fact, you’ll have to will it to the kids since it will most likely outlive you. On the flip side, if you’ve inherited a Christmas cactus that’s been in your family for years, take a few cuttings of it and share it with other family members. You may as well buy some insurance in case the original doesn’t make it. You’ll also share the pressure with your relatives to keep it going. Isn’t that what families are for?

(Note: Buds drop from the plant before the flowers open because of excessive heat, change of location, fluctuating temperatures, cold drafts, under or over watering, fluctuating light levels or when the plant is too close to radiators and fireplaces. Buds will last longer if night temperatures are cooler.)

How Does Your Cactus Bloom?

There are a couple of ways to get this beauty to bloom. This wonderful plant needs cool night temperatures between 12°C (55°F) and 15°C (60°F) for 6 weeks or extended periods of total darkness (12 – 14 hours per night for several weeks) to set bloom. If your plant spends the summer vacationing outdoors, the arrival of the fall season will naturally provide the required cool temperatures.

If you can’t provide the cool temperature because you don’t put your plant outside, your home is too warm from the heating or because you live in an area with year round tropical weather, just meet the ‘complete darkness’ requirement. ‘Complete darkness’ means uninterrupted lighting, which means absolutely no light at all – street lights, house lamps, etc. You can easily achieve this by placing your plant in a closet or by covering it with a dark cloth or bag. Do not leave your plant in the dark at all times; make sure you bring it out during the daylight hours! It takes six to nine weeks of light/dark manipulation to get your Christmas cactus to bloom. The good news with this procedure is that you can literally schedule when you want the blooms to appear. If you want a flower display during the holidays in December, start the process around mid-October.

Do not fertilize during this critical period and make sure you reduce watering. When you notice buds starting to form, place the plant back in its usual spot and return to normal watering. (Don’t move it from there while it’s flowering!) Bear in mind that some years, no matter how hard you try, your plant will not bloom. Other times, it’ll bloom on its own regardless of whether you provide cooler temperatures or longer periods of darkness. The performance of houseplants – as some of you have learned – can sometimes be contradictory to what the botanical rules dictate!

Just do your best. The extra care required by the Christmas cactus is well worth the effort. The brilliant flowers this tropical-style cactus produces are a wondrous gift to behold each holiday season, year after year.

THE CHRISTMAS CACTUS SCHEDULE AT A GLANCE

  • January    Flowering period (do not relocate plant, water normally, keep environment stable)
  • February – March    Resting period (keep plant cool & dry)
  • April – August    Treat normally (water thoroughly when dry, feed every 2 – 3 weeks or monthly. From June to August you can place the plant outdoors in a shady spot)
  • September – October    Plant is preparing to flower. Reduce watering, keep cool, shorten daylight exposure. When flower buds appear, increase water & temperature.
  • November – December    Flowering period (do not relocate plant, water normally, keep environment stable)
(I wonder if I should add that most of the Christmas cacti sold commercially are actually Thanksgiving cacti so my readers won’t wonder why their plants insist on blooming at Thanksgiving in subsequent years. Mmm…nah…)
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