Christmas Cactus seem to be a plant with a loyal following. I've never bought one, but devotees seem to covet their colorful winter blooms. Recalling this made me hesitate in front of a display of Christmas Cacti at the grocery store. I can see the attraction.
November is such a grim month. Colorful autumn leaves have now fallen from the trees leaving bare, grey skeletons. It's dark when you get up in the morning and dark by the time you return home from work. Though this fall has been unseasonably warm, the nights are always damp and cold. Who wouldn't want a bit of cheering under these circumstances?
So I bought a Christmas Cactus.
There was just one minor problem. I know nothing about caring for a Christmas Cactus! While experience and instinct might easily have been my guides, I prefer to use my purchase as an opportunity to learn a little something new.
Here's what I discovered:
Caring for a Christmas Cactus or a Thanksgiving Cactus
Update: Here in Canada our Thanksgiving holiday is in October. What is known as a"Thanksgiving" Cactus in the States is often sold here in Canada as a "Christmas" Cactus in the month of November. All this just goes to show you how problematic common names can be! The "Thanksgiving Cactus" (Schlumbergera truncate) has broad, flat leaves with serrations on the edges. What is known in the States as the "Christmas Cactus" (Schlumbergera bridgesii) has smoother edges. The care for both holiday cacti are basically the same.
The good news for someone with their first Christmas Cactus is that they are pretty easy going houseplants. They like a bright location, but not one with direct sunlight that might burn their foliage.
A cool windowsill won't make them happy. Christmas Cactus like warm spot with temperatures that never fall below 60 degrees F (15-21degrees C).
A Christmas Cactus should be watered approximately once a week. The determining factor is soil that is dry to the touch. As with most houseplants, it's best to water thoroughly until the water trickles through the drainage hole.
One thing I learned from reading and then doing a review for The Indestructible Houseplant (by Tovah Martin) is that indoor plants experience seasonal changes just like outdoor plants. Low light and short days mean that indoor plants slow down their growth and don't need as much moisture or as many nutrients at this time of year.
Not surprisingly then, Christmas Cactus grow most actively in the spring and summer. To give them a boost, start in late winter to fertilize a Christmas Cactus once a month. Then in spring, encourage strong, healthy growth by fertilizing every other week.
To water all my houseplants I use a liquid feed that is commonly available in big box stores. I add a few drops (following the label instructions) to the old jug I use to water my plants.
If you want to do any pruning, there are a couple of options. You can prune a Christmas Cactus just after it flowers and also in early summer.
If your Christmas Cactus appears to be otherwise healthy, leaf drop may be a sign you are overwatering. Too much moisture may cause a cactus to rot and leaves to fall. Likewise too little water can also cause the same problem. Balance is what is needed.
Solution: Adjust your watering regime to provide moisture only when the soil is dry to the touch.
Poorly drained soil can also cause leaf drop. Like so many plants, Christmas Cactus hate sitting in wet, soggy soil.
Solution: Repot your cactus with well-drained soil (like the kind I recommend below).
Temperature is another possible issue. Too much heat or cold temperatures can also cause leaf drop.
Solution: Move your plant to a location that never falls below 60 degrees F (15-21degrees C).
Bud drop may be caused by something as simple as a change of environment. A plant that was grown in ideal greenhouse conditions may experience some shock, and resulting bud drop, as it tries to adapt to its new situation in a home environment.
Solution: Mimic the cactus's ideal growing conditions as best you can.
Dry indoor air is another issue for these plants. They aren't the type of cacti that come from an arid, dry dessert. Christmas Cactus hail from the tropical rainforests of South America where the air is warm and moist.
Solution: Fill the plant's saucer with pebbles and some water that will evaporate and moisten the air.
Improper watering, temperature and light can also cause flower buds to drop (see leaf drop solutions for a course correction).
Combat mealybugs and scale insects with an insecticidal soap spray.
How to get a Christmas Cactus to Re-bloom
Getting a Christmas Cactus to bloom in time for the holiday season involves a little plant trickery. Begin by making adjustments in September (the whole process can take up to 8 weeks).
Blooms are triggered by cool season conditions, so you need to simulate cooler days and shorter daylight hours by providing 12-14 hours of darkness. (Note: Indoor lighting may disrupt this period of darkness, so keep that in mind.) Choose a cool (50-55 degrees F.), dark place for the magic to happen. Reduce the frequency of your watering and don't use any fertilizer during this period.
For the remaining 10 hours each day, place your cactus in its usual spot (bright, indirect sunlight). Once the plant begins to flower, it can stay in its normal bright, warm spot in the house.
When given a favourable location, and proper care, a Christmas Cactus may actually bloom at other points in a given year, but it's worth the extra effort to have flowers for the holidays.
How to Propagate a Christmas Cactus
It's always great to know how to make new plants for free. Propagating a Christmas Cactus is so easy to do, it is worth a try.
With a clean, sharp knife or pair of scissors, cut off one of the lobster claw-shaped leaf segments from a healthy branch of the foliage.
Fill a small pot with Cactus soil, or if you can't find that, a sandy, free-draining soil.
Moisten the soil in your pot.
I made a small divot with my finger and pressed each leaf segment into the moist soil. A little pinch of the soil on either side of the cutting holds it nicely upright.
Cover the pot with a clear plastic bag (I used a lunchtime sandwich bag). The plastic bag creates a little mini-greenhouse that will help keep the air and soil moist. Even though the plastic bag is pretty effective, you still need to water your cuttings if the soil gets dry.
Place your baby Christmas Cacti somewhere bright, but out of direct sunlight. Bright sun will cook your cuttings!
So what's your experience with Christmas Cacti? Please share!