By Debbie Brown, PC EMG
For many years the Christmas cactus (Schlumbergera x buckleyi) has taken its place of honor in seasonal home décor. These well-loved plants are often passed down from generation to generation. I recently became the recipient of my mother’s cactus, which I remember well from my childhood years. Mom lovingly cared for it, displaying it in a sunlit window during its flowering season. The plant, which was started with a cutting from my grandmother’s cactus, is estimated to be well over sixty years old! Now it’s my privilege to watch it grow in my own home.
Unlike other cacti, the Christmas cactus and its relatives don’t live in hot, arid environments such as deserts. Rather, these succulents are native to the tropical rainforests of southern Brazil, where they grow on tree branches and rocks while soaking up the high humidity and dappled sunlight.
Holiday cacti were discovered in the early 1800’s and by the 1900’s there were several hybrids. These were adopted into the Christian holiday traditions due to their blooming times, which coincided with Thanksgiving and Christmas.
The Thanksgiving cactus (Schlumbergera truncata) is often confused with its Christmas cousin. True Christmas cacti has flattened stem segments with smooth scalloped edges. Its stems hang down like a pendant and the range of flowering is from late November through early February. Thanksgiving cacti have a very toothy stem with two to four pointed teeth. The stems grow upright at first and then arch. It can start flowering in late October or November.
Most plant nurseries sell the Thanksgiving cactus as opposed to the Christmas one because it blooms near the Thanksgiving holiday and shopping season. Also, the stems of the Christmas cactus tend to be more fragile causing more difficulty in shipping.
The Easter cactus (Rhipsalidopsis gaertneri) blooms in the spring and sometimes again in fall around Halloween. Its flaring trumpet shaped flowers have pointy pink or red petals. All of the holiday cacti need similar care.
The Christmas cactus is a stunning plant at holiday time. The hanging branches of glossy green flat segments can reach up to 3 feet long. Blooms in red, white, yellow, pink or purple appear at the tips and measure up to 3 inches long with tiers of tubular flowers. Each bloom lasts for several days, and the entire flowering period spans several weeks.
Having a healthy Christmas cactus that is a vibrant green plant throughout the year and full of lush blooms during the holiday season is not hard to accomplish. But it does call for attention to seasonal chores.
Fall is a transitional season for many plants and the Christmas cactus is no exception. If your cactus has been sitting outside during the summer months, be sure to bring it in before the first frost. This is also the time to prepare your cactus to bloom. Though most plants will flower at some point, allowing them a period of dormancy will ensure more abundant and timely blooms during the holidays.
The Christmas cactus bloom cycle hinges on temperature and light. Placing a plant in a dark and cool place for twelve to fourteen hours a day will begin a dormancy period. Temperature should ideally average 50-55 degrees. Water less during this time, but don’t allow the cacti to become overly dry. Skip the fertilizer until budding begins, which may take six to eight weeks.
Once buds form and throughout the winter months, the plant needs more light. Displaying in an east facing window is perfect. Continue the water and fertilizer regimen during the blooming season. The cactus prefers temperatures between 60 and 70 degrees with average to high humidity levels. Keep the plant away from drafts. If the air in your home is dry, consider placing the cacti container on a bed of rocks with just a little water. `
In the spring, after the seasonal blooms dry up, it’s time to trim back some of the leaves. This will help the plant thicken up. Unlike most cacti, the holiday cactus needs to be watered regularly and thoroughly. Avoid letting it sit in water. Fertilizing once or twice per month with a mild household fertilizer will help your plant thrive.
When the temperatures warm up in the summer, the cactus can be placed outside in a shady spot. Porches are excellent. Retain regular water and fertilizer during the growing season. For healthy green leaves keep the soil slightly moist.
Holiday Cacti thrive with a regimented care routine but can be very forgiving as well. A long-neglected plant that’s root bound with limp leaves can be returned to its former glory with some tender loving care. Repotting in good soil and establishing a regular care schedule is usually all that is needed to ensure heirloom plants last for many more years.
Christmas cacti do well when slightly root bound and generally only need repotting every three years. They can very easily be propagated. In spring after blooming, carefully twist a Y-shaped cutting from a stem tip, including at least two or three leaf segments. Allow the cutting to dry a few hours before potting in a moist peat and sand mixture. Place in a lighted area, avoiding direct sunlight. Water the cuttings sparingly at first to prevent rotting. The cuttings should root in just a few weeks and can then be transplanted to potting soil. These make excellent gifts and are especially meaningful to family members. My Mom’s grandchildren are now growing their own Christmas cactus from her mother plant. Heirloom plants are always a treasure!
There are so many things to love about the glorious Christmas cactus! Its dark green foliage, bountiful blooms, longevity, lack of toxicity and ease of care make it a plant worthy to be present in all our homes.
Tune into WHEO 92.7 on October 26 at 8:30 a.m. and listen to Patrick County Master Gardeners share more about this season’s gardening chores.