Tuesday, November 15, 2016

So I bought a Christmas Cactus


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.

Possible Problems:


Leaf Drop

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:

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).

Insect Problems:

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!

26 comments:

  1. I've had one plant for years and just this past weekend picked up a 2nd one. I've always had them bloom twice a year (and never at Christmas!) Thanks for the tips!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. A second round of flowers is always a nice thing. It must be a great little plant if you've bought a second one!

      Delete
  2. This is a really great and informative post, Jennifer! I just wanted to let you know though, that what you have there isn't a Christmas cactus, but a Thanksgiving cactus (Schlumbergera truncata). You can tell by the foliage, for one thing. Christmas cactus foliage has more rounded ends.

    I need to get another one of these. I let one that I'd had for many years die this summer. Shame on me!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I think this is a perfect example why common names can be problematic. Here in Canada our Thanksgiving is in October. Consumers would therefore be confused by a "Thanksgiving" Cactus a month after the holiday has passed. I am guessing that is why the plant tag identified my purchase as a "Christmas" Cactus.
      Thank you Kylee for altering me to the fact that there are two holiday cacti: Schlumbergera truncata and Schlumbergera bridgesii with a slight difference in the foliage. I will try to figure a way to correct my post to reflect the fact that the common name is not necessarily universal. Botanical names always are.

      Delete
  3. This was an excellent post with so much good information about Christmas/(Holiday) cactus.

    I put my Christmas cactus outside in the summer every year. It adds several baby leaves throughout the summer. I have had this cactus for years and years. I believe mine to be a Thanksgiving Cactus, but it has bloomed some years at New Year, and again later in the year. In summer my cactus is in bright light, not much direct sun. It was threatening to go down in the mid 30's the other night, so I brought it in. I keep it near a very bright, sunny window in the dining room. It is already set with buds, and has one bloom fully out. Darkness for pretty many hours each night makes the difference in the bloom....which reminds me I need to go turn off the light in the dining room so Cactus can get its beauty sleep.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I chuckled at the thought of your cactus getting some beauty sleep. Thanks so much for sharing your experiences. I'll keep all that you have said in mind and will hopefully enjoy my plant for many years to come.

      Delete
  4. My cactus are in the conservatory which is just kept frost free, so temperatures drop to +5C at this time of year and they are still very happy and covered in buds.Hours of darkness is very important for the flower buds to develop and not moving the plant once the buds are formed or they are likely to drop. All our cactus are called Christmas cactus over here, no matter when they flower, as we don't have Thanksgiving here!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I envy you the conservatory Pauline. I'd love to have a conservatory filled with plants. Thanks for the sharing the tip not to move the plant once the buds have formed. That will be good to keep in mind.

      Delete
  5. This plant reminds me of my childhood. Thank you Jennifer!

    ReplyDelete
  6. Thanks again for the beautiful pictures and info. I have grown these for years, they are very popular in Arizona. The one thing you should not do, is turn your plant once its starting to bloom. Leave it in the same direction, I don't know why, but it doesn't like it and will cause blooms to drop.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. This is great to know Stacey. I'll try to remember to turn my plant once it starts to bloom. Thanks so much!

      Delete
  7. I just love the colour of the Christmas Cactus ... good tips too.
    Thank you.

    All the best Jan

    ReplyDelete
  8. This was such an informative post and great comments. So timely as I too succumbed to one in the grocery store. Like yours, it's already in bloom with many more buds. Judging from the pictures, mine is a Thanksgiving one too. Now I know how to care for it also. Thanks, Di

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I am a sucker for grocery store flowers, Diane. They feel like such a nice treat after lugging around the store to pick up food and other household staples. Good luck with your purchase!

      Delete
  9. I never knew there was a difference between them, Jennifer, but after looking at the leaves of mine, I see that there is. I have 5 plants. All with the exception of 1, bloom faithfully right around Halloween. :-(
    This year, they did not bloom then, and are just setting their buds now. I have one that belonged to my aunt, and is about 20 years old. It is not very attractive (kind of woody looking), but it blooms faithfully every year.

    Now that I know I can propagate them with cuttings, I know just what I am going to do with that one!

    As always, thank you!!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Sounds like you have quite the collection Lisa. I would love to see the twenty year old cactus in particular.

      Delete
  10. I love these plants. I have two of them and just brought home a few cuttings from my Mom's (as hers are a different color than mine). :)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. They are certainly a plant with a big fan base!

      Delete
  11. My mother had a Christmas cactus for over a decade. I loved seeing the gorgeous blooms, what a sight to behold. I've never grown one myself because I dislike the thought of torturing a houseplant. I can't grow a blasted thing indoors, but I sure do love to see other people's successes. Wonderful post!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I am surprised that a gardener like you Karen lacks the magic touch with houseplants. My collection of houseplants goes up and down in numbers. Right now there is not a bit of room for another plant.

      Delete
  12. I have this plant, I really do need to repot it as it no longer flowers. Good tip about the cuttings, I'll give that a go.xxx

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Good luck with the repotting and cuttings Snowbird.

      Delete
  13. Thanks for all this helpful info, Jennifer. I'm not much of a houseplant person, but I've managed to keep two of these cacti alive, mostly through neglect:) Good to know about how to take cuttings.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. These are the kind of plants that seem to thrive despite some neglect making them a perfect choice for someone who seems to be as busy as you are Rose.

      Delete
    2. These are the kind of plants that seem to thrive despite some neglect making them a perfect choice for someone who seems to be as busy as you are Rose.

      Delete

I love to hear from you. Thanks for leaving a comment.