Winter can seem pretty bleak on the plant front, but there are a lot of beautiful, colorful holiday plants for inside the home or office. Unusual varieties of poinsettia, lush green Norfolk Island Pines, and blooming exotic Christmas cactus are the perfect plants to brighten these dark leafless winter days. The decorative holiday plant we get the most questions about this time of year is the Christmas cactus, or Schlumbergera.
We might assume that all cacti prefer sunny, dry conditions, but this does not apply to the Christmas cactus. Schlumbergera, also known as the Zygo cactus, prefers a moist environment with high humidity and partial shade. These are epiphytic tree dwellers found in the rainforests of Brazil.
There are hundreds of varieties of Schlumbergera, but there are two varieties you will most likely come across this time of year. The most common is actually called the Thanksgiving cactus, Schlumbergera truncate (see photo at the top of this post). Truncata can be recognized by more pointed projections on its leaves; it has a horizontal growth habit; and it will bloom earlier than Schlumbergera buckleyi, the true Christmas cactus.
Buckleyi has a pendulous growth habit and rounded leaf projections. The third plant commonly found in this group of holiday plants is the Easter cactus, Rhipsalidopsis gaertinorii. This late winter-blooming holiday cactus has thicker leaves and much rounder undulating edges than the other two. All three have a very similar look but a different blooming schedule.
These holiday plants are considered easy care but have some very specific needs to be met in order to flourish. They require a well-drained soil, and our Fifth Season Cactus Mix is the perfect medium for them. These cacti prefer to be slightly root bound. If you want to repot them, the best time to do it would be April, the beginning of their growing season. When choosing a pot, choose a pot only one inch larger than their existing pot.
In their native environment, these plants grow under a bright tree cover. Direct all day sun will most likely burn their leaves and leave them too dry. If the leaves turn reddish brown they are getting too much sunlight.
Water your holiday cactus when the top inch of soil is dry to the touch. Water thoroughly until water comes out the bottom of the pot. Increase humidity around the plant by putting a tray of stones with water under the pot. Never let the plant sit in water. You will want to fertilize the plant with a well-balanced liquid fertilizer such as Dyna-gro once a month during active growth from April to August. Holiday cactus will also benefit from extra magnesium. One teaspoon of Epsom salts per gallon of water applied once a month is recommended.
To encourage your cacti to bloom, pinch them back in June to encourage branching. In September pinch back any new terminal growth ends that are less than one ½ inch. This will help shape the plant and promote buds on the more mature segments. 8 weeks before expected blooming time, begin to reduce light. These plants need 12-16 hours of total darkness in order to set buds. You may want to cover the plant to make sure it is not getting any light, which will cause bud drop. Cooler evening temperatures of 55-68 degrees will also aid in bud formation. Daytime temperatures should be 70-80 degrees, higher temperatures than that will cause bud drop. Your plant should bloom for 4-6 weeks depending upon maturity. A large plant can have hundreds of blooms.
We have had many people ask how to propagate their grandmother’s or great-grandmother’s beloved Christmas cacti. It makes me wonder how old and of what antique varieties they may be dealing with. Propagation of any variety of holiday cacti is fairly simple. You start by ripping off, never cutting, several stems with 4-5 segments on them. Allow the branches to air dry for 3 days. Place them in a 4”container of moist cactus mix. Seal them in a clear plastic bag to maintain humidity and place in indirect bright light for 4-6 weeks. When the plants have set roots, remove from the bag and begin to fertilize.
Holiday cactus are not only easy care and beautifully colorful, they are pet friendly, non toxic plants as well! Visit Fifth Season Gardening to see all of the spectacular holiday blooming plants, gifts, pots, soils and amendments you could ever wish for.