Once considered old-fashioned, Christmas cacti are enjoying a resurgence in popularity. A new generation is discovering how easy they are to grow and their uncanny ability to radiate cheer during the dark months of winter. The Christmas cactus, also called ‘true cactus,’ is considered to be one of the easiest tropical flowering plants to take care of that lasts for many years.
This stunning tropical cactus is a hybrid of Schlumbergera truncata and Schlumbergera russelliana. Although this blooming cactus is a hybrid, its origins are in the Brazilian tropical rainforests, where Schlumbergera make their home as epiphytes, growing on tree branches. (Epiphyte comes from the Greek words epi meaning upon and phyton meaning plant.)
In Brazil, this cactus blooms when exposed to about six weeks of 12 hour long stretches of darkness. It also does the same here in the U.S. and Canada. The long dark nights that precede the winter solstice is why this beautiful flower typically blooms just before Christmas.
The Christmas cacti have dark-green flattened stems composed of segments joined in a scalloped pattern. Flowers appear at the tips of the stems and are available in shades of pink, red, purple, yellow, and white. More than 200 cultivars of this cactus exist.
Growing Christmas Cacti
Growing this plant is easy, but here are a few tips to help make it bloom before Christmas.
- Shorter, cooler days and nights for about 8-10 weeks are needed for the plant to set buds. If you live in the southern U.S., taking it outdoors in the autumn is ideal but be sure to keep it out of direct sun. Bring the plant back inside before the first frost.
- Keep the soil barely moist, but not too dry. Limp, shriveled stems means it is too dry.
- Once it starts budding, keep the plant in the same location. Changes in temperature and light will cause it to drop its buds and flowers. Also keep it away from any drafty areas (this includes heating vents).
- The Christmas cactus should be repotted about once every three years. It prefers to be slightly pot-bound and it tends to bloom best this way. Always wait until spring or early summer to repot; never do this while it’s blooming.
- Tropical doesn’t always mean heat-loving, and the flowers will actually stay on longer in a cool, well-lit room. Make sure to keep it away from heating vents, fireplaces or any other source of heat.
- Although this cactus will adapt to low light, it will produce more abundant floral displays in a bright location. Always keep them a few feet back from south or west-facing windows. If you move them outside for the summer, it is really important to keep them shaded or the leaves will burn.
- Christmas cacti are not overly drought tolerant. While they need to dry out between waterings to avoid root rot, the soil should not get bone dry. When the top inch of soil is dry, this is a good time to water. The plant does like some humidity. Remember that these plants hail from steamy jungles, and our parched winter air can wreak havoc. Higher humidity leads to more blooms and longer blooms.
Christmas Cacti: Fertilizing And Propagation
Like orchids, Christmas cacti need very little fertilizer. Feed two to three times a year with an all-purpose fertilizer. Stop fertilizing in October to encourage flowering.
You can pinch the branches back a month after flowering finishes. Never pinch off more than a third, and remember that the cuttings are easy to root, to grow a new plant.
To root the cuttings for new plants, cut back shoots from the tips, cut at the second joint of each tip. The cutting should show signs of growth within a few weeks, at which time the plant can be transferred to another container, if desired, with a looser potting soil mix of compost, loam and sand.
Is This Cactus Poisonous?
Many house plants can cause severe poisoning in pets so being cautious when choosing which plants to adorn your home is important. Christmas cactus is a popular choice among many people, especially during the holidays and it has been often categorized as a safe but best to avoid flowering plant.
The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals or ASPCA, affirms that the Christmas cactus is non-toxic to dogs, cats and other pet animals.
Ideally children should not be eating any sort of plants that are not recommended for a human diet. Although the Christmas cactus has been deemed safe it is always advisable not to have this plant where an infant or toddler can get a hold of it.
Christmas Cactus For the Holidays
A Christmas cactus is a lovely addition to your home. Get to know your new plant’s blooming schedule, and repot when needed, and you’ll enjoy its blooms for many holidays to come.