An early sign of the holiday season, what we know as the Christmas cactus begins its beautiful and prolific display of color around early November, with some plants that will flower later and last through the New Year season.
The range of colors of these easy-to-care-for indoor plants is amazing in itself. Reds to pinks are the most common, but white and shades of fuchsia, peach, yellow and more can be found. Next to poinsettias and amaryllis, Christmas cacti make great holiday gifts and are readily available in nurseries and even supermarket displays.
Christmas cactus (Schlumbergera bridgesii) originates from the rainforests of South America and is not the typical cactus we know from desert-like landscapes. In fact, it is an epiphyte, natively growing in the crooks of rainforest tree branches. “Holiday cactus” may be a more accurate name for this familiar plant, since there are varieties that bloom at Thanksgiving and Easter as well as Christmas. While close investigation of leaf shape reveals some differences between the varieties, we lay persons can sufficiently identify them by the season in which they bloom.
Christmas cactus is a succulent that does best in bright, indirect light a few feet from a window. Advice varies on the best orientation; most sources say that an east- or north-facing window best imitates its native shady rainforest habitat, but south- or west-facing windows can work as well, if plants are given the proper care.
First, use a rich well-draining potting medium, such as that sold for succulents and cacti. Christmas cacti prefer to be root-bound, so don’t move into bigger pots too quickly. Water plants when the upper inch of soil feels dry.
As a succulent, they can hold water in their leaves, but nonetheless leaves should not be allowed to feel limp. Too much water in the pot can cause roots to rot, which is a major reason that plants fail. Keeping a tray of water near the furnace register or other heat source will keep the air humid and benefit your plants especially at bloom time.
Pruning helps Christmas cacti to branch and flower, but don’t prune after mid-summer. Keep those trimmings that you cut off, especially ones with two or three leaf segments, as these can be easily propagated for new plants. By next year, you will have some to gift.
Fertilizing for new and established plants should take place between April and September which is the prime growing season. Once the days begin to shorten, it is time to keep your plants away from artificial light during the night. They need about 12 hours of darkness to bloom during the holidays. And bloom they will!
‘Tis the season to enjoy these hardy beauties. If you have questions about growing Christmas cactus or other holiday plants, contact the Garden Hotline at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Ginny Majewski is a Master Gardener with Penn State Extension, Beaver County.
This article originally appeared on Beaver County Times: Over the Garden Gate: Christmas cactus flowers through New Year's