The Christmas cactus, or Schlumbergera bridgesii as it is botanically named, is a familiar sight at stores and garden centers this time of year. It has unique, flattened, segmented foliage and brightly colored, exotic blooms in red, coral, purple, pink, yellow or white.
Unlike other cacti that are native to dry deserts, the Christmas cactus is native to tropical rainforests in Brazil where they grow as epiphytes – plants that attach themselves to other plants for support. Christmas cacti can be extremely long-lived and often become plants passed down through generations.
When choosing a Christmas cactus, look for a plant with bright green foliage and buds held tightly to the ends of its stems. If the plant looks like it is wilting, the foliage is gray-green or there are dead areas on the stems near the soil, leave it at the store or garden center.
After you have made your way through lines of holiday shoppers to make your purchase, be sure the plant is covered before it leaves the store – cold temperatures and drafts are harmful. Once home, it prefers a spot with bright, indirect light. Placed in too much sun, the leaves may burn; positioned in too much shade, it will reduce the plant’s blooming potential.
Water the plant when the soil feels dry to the touch. Frequent misting is often required in the dry air typical in most homes in winter. Setting the plant on a tray of pebbles filled with water is another way to create a more humid environment around the plant.
A Christmas cactus actually prefers its roots tight inside its pot and rarely needs re-potting. When it finally must be re-potted, do it in spring or early summer. To keep the plant from getting leggy, remove up to one-third of the foliage segments about a month after it has finished blooming. This will encourage the plant to grow from its sides and remain bushy.
Feed Christmas cacti every couple of weeks with a liquid houseplant fertilizer diluted to half strength and continue this schedule of feeding most of the year. Stop feeding as plants prepare for their winter bloom.
If your plant has been growing happily since last Christmas, you can control the timing of its re-bloom. Count back about eight weeks from when you would like your plant to bloom and then stop fertilizing, cut back on watering and give plant 12 to 14 hours of darkness in a cool spot where temperatures are between 50 and 55° every day. Darkness can be provided by covering the plant with a box or putting it in an unused closet.
When flower buds develop, begin watering a bit more but be careful not to overwater. Overwatering can cause buds to drop.
If you want to share your Christmas cactus with others, it is easy to propagate. Just cut a segment from the tip of a stem and place it about a quarter of its height deep in moist potting mix. Or take a section of segments when you prune during its annual maintenance after blooming and plant it with at least one segment below the surface of the soil. Either way, move the baby plant to a spot in your home with bright, indirect light. New growth should begin within a few weeks.
Pick up a Christmas cactus when you are out holiday shopping or take a cutting from a friend’s plant (with permission, of course) and start your own plant. Garden with me!