The holidays have arrived and so has the Christmas cactus. Set this favorite holiday plant in a basket, decorative pot or foil wrap and it will be ready to give as a gift or add to your holiday décor. With proper care this holiday favorite can flower for four to eight weeks and grow for decades, becoming a family heirloom handed down from one generation to the next.
The plant sold as a Christmas cactus may actually be a Thanksgiving cactus. The true Christmas cactus blooms later and has small segments with rounded edges. The Thanksgiving cactus, though often sold as the Christmas cactus, has toothed or jagged segments and typically blooms prior to Christmas.
Fortunately, their growing requirements and care are basically the same so the plants will do fine no matter the name on the label. These, or hybrids of the two plants, flower with cool nights and long uninterrupted dark periods. A third holiday plant, the Easter cactus, sets flowers in spring as the days start to lengthen.
Christmas and Thanksgiving cactuses are epiphytes that naturally grow on trees in shaded and humid forests along the coast of Brazil. They all prefer bright indirect light, high humidity and a thorough watering when the top few inches of soil begin to dry. Don’t over water but don’t let the soil dry completely. Water a bit more often when the plant is in bloom.
Grow them in an organic well-drained potting mix for best results. Water thoroughly and pour off the excess that collects in the saucer to avoid root rot. Reduce maintenance and improve the growing conditions with the help of gravel trays. Place a layer of pebbles, decorative stones or marbles in the saucer or bottom of the foil wrap or basket. The pot will be elevated above any excess water that collects in the pebbles. As the water evaporates, it increases the humidity around the plant.
Keep your flowering cactus in a cool bright location to extend its bloom time. Avoid drafts of hot and cold air, moisture stress and other changes in the environment that can cause buds and flowers to drop.
Fertilize with a dilute solution of flowering houseplant fertilizer once it has finished blooming and throughout spring and summer as needed. Grow your cactus in a north-facing window or set back from an east- or west-facing window where it receives bright indirect light throughout the year. Too much sun turns the leaf segments dark red.
Don’t be anxious to move these plants to a bigger container. They prefer to be somewhat pot-bound and can remain in the same pot for years.
Encourage a new flush of flowers with cooler night temperatures around 55 to 60 degrees and slightly drier soil. An uninterrupted dark period will also help promote flowering.
Start the dark treatment in early to mid-October for holiday flowers. Cover the plants or move them to a location free of any artificial light, indoors or outside, each night and provide bright indirect light each day. Any interruption in the dark period from outdoor, street or reading lights can delay or prevent flowering.
Many experts find providing the same dark treatment as poinsettias, 14 hours of dark each night, promotes flowering. Michigan State University recommends providing 16 hours of total darkness and eight hours of light for at least eight days to promote flowering.
Add a Christmas cactus to your indoor plant collection and share a few with friends and family over the holidays. These easy-care flowering beauties are sure to brighten the recipient’s mood and holiday décor.
Melinda Myers has written more than 20 gardening books, including “The Midwest Gardener’s Handbook” and “Small Space Gardening.” She hosts The Great Courses “How to Grow Anything” DVD series and the nationally-syndicated Melinda’s Garden MomentTV & radio program. Myers is a columnist and contributing editor for Birds & Blooms magazine. Her web site is melindamyers.com.