- Thursday, November 29, 2012
Although the poinsettia is the plant most
closely associated with the holiday season, the
Christmas cactus is a great plant that is becoming
more widely given and enjoyed. The Christmas
cactus (Schlumbergera x buckleyi) is not a true
cactus and does not have the prickles that the
name implies. A native of the humid, shaded rain
forests in Central and South America, the Christmas
cactus is an “epiphytic,” a plant that grows
on other plants but is not parasitic. The Christmas
cactus is leafless with flattened, scalloped,
smooth green stems on spineless joints. The tubular,
rose-like flowers have many petals and extend
from the end of the stem segments.
Christmas cactus is unique and versatile
and is sold in a range of sizes from 3-inch pots to
hanging baskets. And Christmas cactus plants
have the virtue of continuing to grow and bloom
in the home for many years after the holidays
are over. “We had one that finally died after 23
years,” said Mark Cobia, a grower in Winter Garden,
Florida. “It is not uncommon for them to
live 10-14 years, though the average life is probably
five years.” Christmas cactus plants come in
more than 65 varieties with a range of colors from
whites and yellows to reds and purples.
Most problems in maintaining the Christmas
cactus seem to come from over- or underwatering.
Because of the name, many assume
that Christmas cactus can survive without any
water. That assumption is not true. To keep your
plant growing well, water thoroughly when the
top half of the soil in the pot feels dry to the touch.
Stick your finger down in the dirt to get a good
reading on the moisture level. After the soil has
absorbed as much water as it can, discard any
remaining water in the saucer. Standing water
will cause problems. Do not water again until the
top half becomes dry again.
The soil in your plant should be well-draining.
Don’t repot your plant until it is obviously
crowded and repot only while it is young and actively
growing. Very old plants resent being disturbed.
If you need to transplant your Christmas
cactus, select a potting mix for succulent plants
(with a little compost thrown in).
To maintain the lovely blooms that arrive
with your plant, keep it in a well-lighted location
away from drafts from heat vents, fireplaces or
other sources of hot air. The blooms will last longer
if they are kept in a cooler spot.
While Christmas cactus can adapt to low
light situations, they will perform better in bright
light. More abundant blooms are produced on
plants that have been exposed to high light intensity.
If you keep your plants in a sunny location
indoors, they will reward you with more blossoms.
Light, however, should be indirect. Direct
sunlight can burn the leaves. If you move your
plant outdoors in the summer, keep it in a spot
that receives filtered light or bright shade. When
it’s time to bring the plants back inside in the fall,
slowly adjust the plant to life indoors by gradually
increasing the number of hours they spend
indoors each day.
Once your Christmas cactus has finished
its initial bloom, you should encourage branching
by carefully pruning the plant. Remove a few
sections of each stem by pinching them off with
your fingers or cutting with a sharp knife. These
sections can be rooted in moist vermiculite to
propagate new plants.
Like poinsettias, Christmas cactus need
some nudging to bloom at Christmas time. Sensitive
to the length of day, you should induce
blooming by controlling the amount of light the
plant gets. Begin the dark treatments in about
early to mid-October to have plants in full bloom
by the holidays. They need to be placed in uninterrupted
darkness for at least 14 hours a day
at a temperature of around 60°-65° F. Christmas
cactus will also bloom if they are subjected to
cool temperatures of about 50° to 55° F. at night.
Plants will be ready for the holidays if the cool
treatments are started by early November. Once
buds begin to form at the end of the leaves,
move your plant into brighter light and feed with
a weak fertilizer high in potash every two weeks
or so. Keep feeding until early summer, then stop.