Christmas Cactus

Challenging plant for avid gardeners

Christmas cactus

Eleven months of the year the Christmas cactus (Schlumbergera bridgesii) is an unprepossessing plant with flat, grey green, segmented leaves. In month twelve though, it blossoms with impossibly beautiful, delicate flowers at the end of each articulated leaf. The colors range from dark red to creamy white. Hues of pink, salmon, and magenta are often readily available.

Holiday care

During the holiday season, you can ensure long lasting blooms by keeping your cactus on the cool side with a little humidity. Place it in a bright location away from heat vents, fireplaces, and drafts. Water it to maintain dampness, but don't let it be wet. Good drainage with cacti is critical. After you water, drain any remaining in the saucer. It's time to water when the top of the soil feels dry.

Christmas cacti are long lived and can soldier on for decades with minimal attention. However, if you want to enjoy the December display year after year, you need to take a few measures to ensure flower production.

After the holidays

After the holidays, once the flowers are spent, put your cactus in a sunny window. A southern or eastern exposure is often ideal. A sun porch, bathroom, or laundry area that isn't overheated is good. Continue to water when the soil feels dry to the touch. The temperature should be about 55–65 degrees from January to May. In May, once all danger of frost is past, you can set your cactus outside on a porch or patio that gets between half to three quarters shade. Too much sun can burn its succulent leaves. If your plant is large, pinch sections to shape. This encourages branching and results in a more handsome plant.

During the summer, your cactus will grow. Keep it moist, but not wet. It's a cactus, after all. Too much water will cause your cactus to get root rot and die.

A little Liquid Miracle-Gro for indoor plants is a fine addition every month or so. A little seems to go a long way. A specially formulated fertilizer for cactus is also suitable. Less is more with cacti.

Spring is a good time to break off a segment or two for propogating. You can set it into a glass of water on the window sill just until it starts getting roots. Once you see them growing, put the segment into a small pot of cactus soil. Keep it damp and it will take off. Cactus does take some time so don't expect rapid growth.

It's not necessary to repot every year. Christmas cacti benefit from repotting every few years, but don't become root bound like many other plants. Use a cactus mix, or mix potting soil with sand and vermiculite in a 2-1-1 ratio.

Forcing bud development

At the end of the summer when the temperatures change, move your cactus back inside to its cool spot. Stop fertilizing in September and give it a little less water until you start to see buds.

Once you notice buds, your cactus needs about 12 hours of darkness per day. Pull the curtains or cover it with a large bag, but don't move the plant. Christmas cactus can be very picky. They don't want to be moved and they want their water "just so". Variations in temperature or drafts, light, and so on can cause them to drop their buds.

Other holiday plants are less persnickety about their care and feeding than the Christmas cactus. The amaryllis and poinsettias are both popular and very beautiful as well as being somewhat less taxing. Nevertheless, give a Christmas cactus a try and see how it works for you. They also make great gifts for gardening friends.

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