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The Christmas cactus (Schlumbergera bridgesii), also known as Christmas cacti, Thanksgiving cactus or holiday cacti, no other plant seems to be equal, for its odd beauty or for the number of questions from frustrated owners about its care and culture.
Stand beside a plant in full flower and just listen to the comments. Every other question concerns this pink-flowered tropical cactus from Brazil.
- “Why doesn’t it bloom?”
- It flowered last year but not this year. Why?”
- “How much water should I give it?”
- “It rots at the base. Why?”
Question after question about Schlumbergera bridgesii (formerly Zyyocactus truncatus). And with good reason.
The Christmas cactus is confusing. Even botanists don’t always agree, except on where it originates — Brazil. There it is an air plant, growing on trees. Here, in North America, it has become a pot plant capable of a lively existence in the home or greenhouse. Read on to know more about Christmas cactus care.
Prized For Its Flowers
Its pendent, fuchsia-like flowers, brilliant cerise pink with gold stamens against a background of odd, crablike jointed deep green leaves is as exotic as its orchid neighbors in the tropical forests of Brazil. Christmas cactus plants bloom for about two months at a time of year when good flowering plants are at a premium. As soon as the first flowers fade, more open. Mature plants can produce hundreds of flowers.
Its life span is measured in decades. I know of two that are over 20 years old, and have heard of one that is 32. This is not even close to the record.
Moisture… A Relative Term
Being tropical jungle plants, they need more moisture and shade than most other cacti. But the term “more moisture” is relative.
The soil should be moist but not too much so. Be sure there are broken clay pot pieces, pebbles or charcoal at the bottom of the pot for drainage.
Never set the plant in a saucer of water. Too much water causes the root rot. Let the soil dry out occasionally well down into the pot to prevent the soil from going sour.
Soil and Potting
The soil itself should be a little richer than that used for other cacti, but since the plant likes a slightly acid soil, avoid lime or bone meal. A mixture of two parts good cactus potting mix, one part coarse builder’s sand and one part peat moss is excellent.
Use a pot not much larger than the diameter of the plant (a two-inch plant in a three-inch pot). Put in a handful of soil. Set in the plant, spreading the roots.
Now fill the pot to within a half-inch of the rim and press the soil down firmly with the fingers.
Place the plant in a bright place away from direct sunlight, bright lights and drafts. Try to make this spot almost permanent, as the Christmas cactus does not like to be moved about.
Choose an east or west window as the best location for the plant. A south window with some shading is next best.
Christmas Cactus Thrives on Neglect
The number of questions asked about Christmas cactus is more amazing considering that the plant thrives on neglect. Weeks without water won’t harm it. In fact, too much care is dangerous to the plant.
Late spring is the best time for repotting, should that be needed. Transfer the plant into a pot that is one size larger than what it is in now. Then set it in the shade outdoors for the summer.
New leaf growth starts in the spring. When it does you can start fertilizing it about every two weeks with a good liquid houseplant fertilizer, following directions on the package.
Time For a Nap
In early fall when nights start to get cool, bring the plant inside and give it a 30-day nap. Place it in a cool, dim location or indirect light and do not water it for about a month. Then gradually expose it to full sunlight and increase the water supply over what it had when it was outside.
Like chrysanthemums and poinsettias, the Christmas cactus is a short day plant. As the days get shorter its buds are formed. This is when most of the mistakes are made that delay its blooming or stop it altogether.
Avoid Strong Artificial Light
Strong artificial light on it at night will retard the bloom. if you must turn on the lights where the plant is, cover it with a double sheet of newspaper, sheet or towel. Watering at this time, when the buds are formed, is decreased. If the plant receives no artificial light from sundown to sunup, it will justify its name by blooming approximately at Christmas.
Can Be Grafted
The plant is tough and adaptable. It can be grown on its own roots, or those who are technically inclined can graft (propagate Christmas cactus) on pereskia or opuntia cactus plant and make standards out of it.
Careless handling sometimes causes the crablike joints to break. Lay the pieces aside in a dry shady spot until the raw ends harden into a callus. Then plant them in a well-drained soil or sand. There is little danger of the cuttings starting to rot.
The pagoda-like flowers will brighten up the dull winter months as a special reward for the small care the plant requires.