Growing and Caring for the Christmas Cactus
When the Christmas cactus begins to bloom, it's a sure sign that the holidays are soon to arrive. Their dainty blooms of pink, red, salmon, yellow, white, fuchsia, or a combination of colors, make their appear before winter fully arrives. The blooms are a welcome sight when days are cold and summer is nothing more than a distant memory. No other flowering houseplant is quite like the Christmas cactus.
The Christmas cactus, also known as the forest cacti, is native to the rain forests of southeastern Brazil, where it thrives on the limbs of trees in the spotted light of the dense forest canopy. The potted Christmas cactus we find in stores in North America is not the same as the rainforest variety, but a hybrid succulent cross between two different types. The idea of giving a Christmas cactus as a gift during the holiday's was popularized in England. In North America, the Christmas cactus is the second most favorite plant to gift during the holiday season, next to the poinsettia. When given what it needs, a Christmas cactus will reward you with many seasons of beautiful blooms.
Ideal Growing Conditions
The ideal location for growing a Christmas cactus is in a north or east-facing window.
TIP: Our expert gardening advisor, Susan Patterson adds, "A Christmas cactus needs plenty of light to thrive, however it is not fond of direct hot sun. If a Christmas cactus is exposed to intense light, its leaves will become limp and turn red. You can take a Christmas cactus outside in the warmer months, but it must be placed in the shade or partial shade to avoid burning the foliage."
Ideal growing temperatures are between 55 and 70 degrees F.
Unopened flower buds dropping off are one of the biggest problems for those attempting to grow a Christmas cactus. To prevent this problem, when autumn arrives and buds begin to form, sustain household temperatures below 90oF. If temperatures are too high, the buds won't survive.
Watering and Feeding
TIP: Susan says, "The Christmas cactus is a tropical relative to the desert cactus and does not tolerate drought conditions. Water your cactus when the soil is dry down to 1 inch. Be careful not to overwater as this will cause root rot."
If you move your cactus outside for the summer months, maintain evenly moist soil. Once autumn arrives, back off watering a little, but don't stop watering altogether.
Feed your Christmas cactus once a month beginning in early spring and throughout the summer with a complete water-soluble houseplant fertilizer. When fall arrives, cut back on fertilizing. Consult the product label for specific instructions and best results.
Like the holiday rival, the poinsettia, the Christmas cactus is photoperiodic, meaning it relies on periods of darkness and specific temperatures in order to produce blooms. Without increased hours of darkness and cooler evening temperatures, the Christmas cactus won't produce blooms.
Around mid October, place your Christmas cactus in a location that receives approximately 12 hours of complete darkness. Provide it with bright indirect light the remaining 12 hours.
TIP: Susan explains, "This period of darkness will encourage blooming. Christmas cacti will also bloom if you keep temperatures low, around 50 degrees, thus avoiding the need for the dark treatment. Plants left in a cool environment beginning in November will bloom by Christmas."
After the Christmas cactus has finished blooming, do a little pruning to increase blooms the following year. Simply remove by hand one or two phylloclades from each branch.
TIP: Susan reminds you, "Save the cuttings for propagation."
A Christmas cactus is very easy to propagate, and it's a great way to share a plant with friends and loved ones.
Simply remove a section of 3 or 4 phylloclades by twisting them off at the joint. Allow the section to dry for at least 24 hours, so the severed area can form a scab.
Once the severed area has dried, plant it in a moistened mixture of 1 part perlite and 1 part peat moss. Half of the bottom segment should rest beneath the potting mixture, and the pot should be placed in a location that receives plenty of filtered sunlight.
Keep the potting mixture damp by misting it on a daily basis, but don't water it. The segments will eventually begin to wilt, and they will appear to be dying. Don't give up and throw it away. New growth will appear, and roots will take hold beneath the soil. Once the roots are well established, water and care for the Christmas cactus according to the above instructions.
The Christmas cactus thrives in cramped conditions, but nutrients in soil become depleted after a few years. Every 2 or 3 years, repot the plant in late winter or early spring, when it isn't forming buds or blooms. Use well draining soil such as cactus soil. Alternately you can make your own mixture by combining 1 part potting soil, 1 part perlite, and 2 parts peat moss.