How to care for your Christmas cactus
The plant’s stunning flowers, commonly called Christmas cactus, may catch your eye in stores and nurseries at this time of year. Its bell-shaped flowers in shades of red, pink, orange or white can add a cheerful touch to your indoor garden during the holidays.
My neighbor once gave me a plant she called Christmas cactus as a gift at Christmas time. My neighbor is an avid gardener and had her own Christmas cactus several years ago. I’ve never heard of it before, and fair warning, I haven’t had much luck with it. Here are some tips and tricks I’ve learned since then that will hopefully allow me better luck in my next attempt.
How to Identify a Christmas Cactus
The Christmas cactus has many common names. Common names include crab cactus, holiday cactus, Christmas cactus, and Thanksgiving cactus. The scientific name of the plant is Schlumbergera. There are two main varieties: Amputated Group F Buckley group. the Amputated The variety is often called the Thanksgiving cactus, and Buckley Christmas cactus set. The leaves (leaves) of Thanksgiving cactus have pointed ends, while Christmas cactus tend to have scalloped fronts shaped like arrowheads.
Schlumbergera It belongs to the cactus family, but it does not look like what we consider a typical cactus. Its flat, segmented “leaves” are actually fleshy stems called phylloclades or cladodes (also known as “clades”), which are actually modified branches.
It is native to Brazil, where it grows in moist, shady rainforests rather than the typical dry desert habitat of the southwestern United States, where we expect to find cacti. In its native habitat, the Christmas cactus grows as an epiphyte. An epiphyte is a plant that grows on the surface of another plant and derives its moisture and nutrients from the air, rain, water, or debris accumulated around it. Epiphytes are not considered parasitic because they depend only on the other plant for physical support and do not derive their nutrition from the host plant.
How to care for a Christmas cactus
In care SchlumbergeraYou will want to keep it indoors in a pot with well-draining soil. Since it is a tropical plant, it does not tolerate cold temperatures. Give it bright, indirect natural light, as too much light can stress the plant. Doesn’t require a lot of water. Soak the plant and then let the top of the soil dry before watering it again, as it is susceptible to root rot if it is watered too much. The general rule is to water it every 1-3 weeks.
After a few months of flowering, begin using organic aloe vera plant food by following the instructions on the container. Fertilization is not done during the bud and flowering cycles.
How to make your Christmas cactus bloom
With the right growing conditions (and a little luck!) the plant will bloom sometime between November and January. The Christmas cactus is daylength sensitive, which means it blooms when the days become shorter. They bloom most reliably when the length of the light can be controlled by artificial light sources.
Assuming your plant has not already flowered within the past six months, starting in October or November, reduce watering and give it 12-14 hours of darkness each day and moderate light for the rest of the day. Keep the temperature a little cooler (50-65°F), or increase the dark time to compensate.
When buds form, gradually increase light and temperatures until you resume your normal routine. After the flowering period, let it rest again, keeping it at cool temperatures and watering it infrequently until about the end of March.
Common problems with Christmas cactus
- Buds fall before flowering: Christmas cactus may drop flower buds for several different reasons including temperature changes, over-watering and low humidity. Pests are not common but mealybugs and brown downy scale can also cause buds to drop.
- Wilting or curling leaves: Unfortunately, this can be caused by excess water or overwatering. Use your finger to test the soil, and water only if the soil is dry about an inch below the surface.
- Black or rotting stems: too much water.
- Dark red or pink leaves: This can occur when the light is too intense. Also when the soil is very dry for a long period of time.
- Pests: Mealybugs are small, white, wingless, soft-bodied insects that hide in the joints of plants and in the soil. It’s basically a sap sucker that releases sticky honeydew, dehydrating and eventually killing your plant. A solution of 70% or less isopropyl alcohol in water can be applied directly to mealybugs with a cotton swab to kill or remove them. Repeat once a week as needed until the infestation disappears. For more information about mealybugs, visit: https://ipm.ucanr.edu/PMG/PESTNOTES/pn74174.html
Pruning and propagating Christmas cactus
If you want a bushier, less leggy plant, you can cut your Christmas cactus in late spring. Any healthy stems of new plants can be rooted. The Christmas cactus is one of the simplest plants to propagate. Use shears or your hand to pinch and twist part of the joint. You can root Christmas cactus cuttings either in water or by placing the cuttings a quarter lengthwise in a mixture of coarse sand and perlite or peat.
With proper and consistent care, holiday cacti can last for decades. There are plants that have been passed down through generations for 30, 40 or 50 years. I think I will try this plant again. Maybe I overwatered it.
Tulare-Kings County Master Gardeners will answer your questions
Nov. 18 – Hoffman Arboretum Plant Clinic, 12491 W. Lacey, Hanford, 10 a.m.-1 p.m.
November 18 – Visalia Farmers Market, Tulare Court North Parking Lot, 8-11 a.m.
November 18 – Wreath Making Class, Tulare Public Library, 475 North M. Tulare Street, 11 a.m.-12 p.m.
Questions? Contact the master gardeners
Tulare County: (559) 684-3325, Tuesdays and Thursdays, 9:30-11:30;
Kings County: (559) 852-2736, Thursdays only, 9:30-11:30 a.m.
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