The Christmas Cactus is a plant with a long life, even if sometimes
neglected. They brighten the winter with
their cheerful blossoms and give plant lovers something to mull over- is it a
Christmas, Thanksgiving or Easter Cactus?
This family of cacti doesn’t come from the hot desert. They come from the cool mountain rainforests
in Brazil. They don’t grow in soil but
in pockets of humus rich debris in the crotches of trees and cracks of
rocks. They usually have a spreading,
Christmas cacti have been in cultivation a long time. The plants being
sold today are clones of several crosses of two species, Schlumbergera bridgesii, (or Schlumbergera
russelliana), and Schlumbergera
truncate that were developed in the 1800’s. Typically they are given the
names Thanksgiving cactus or Christmas cactus by the time of year they
bloom. There are some slight differences
in leaf shape in the different clones.
To add to the confusion Christmas Cacti bloom can be manipulated fairly
easily by growers and the different varieties may be in bloom at the same time
or even delayed until later in the spring, when they can be sold in place of
the true Easter Cacti. Some varieties
also bloom sporadically all winter.
The Easter Cactus belongs to another species entirely, Rhipsalidopsis gaertneri. It comes from the same general area as the
other holiday cacti and requires just about the same care. It usually blooms in
The holiday cacti all have leaves that are thick and fleshy and occur in
segments linked together. They are dark green. The base of the plant may turn
woody as it ages. The earliest blooming
Cacti have segments that have points at the top and a jagged side; the later
blooming cacti tend to have more rounded tops and smoother sides, although this
is very variable. Easter Cacti have
more rounded segments.
The Christmas- Thanksgiving Cacti produce buds at the end of a segmented
stem. The buds take several weeks to
grow from tiny bumps to long, beautiful flowers. Each flower is tubular, with satin-like
petals folded back along the tube in layers.
These varieties now come in traditional red along with pink, white,
orange, yellow and lavender.
The Easter Cactus produces buds at the ends of stems and along the stem
at other segments. The flowers of the Easter cactus are rounder, and more like
a daisy than a tube. There are several shades of red, pink and mauve.
The rainforest cacti are grown by rooting one of the leaf segments. The leaf segments will root easily when stuck
in damp vermiculite or gravel. Most
gardeners will buy or be given potted plants, usually in bloom. Take the foil off the pot and place it in a
bright, sunny window. Make sure the pot
has drainage holes. There is no need to
rush to re-pot the plant as most holiday cacti actually prefer to be root
Plants found in stores are usually only labeled by color not by variety
name. It is possible to find named
varieties in catalogs and at better garden stores.
Your Christmas cactus will bloom longer if your house is on the cool
side, especially at night. But don’t let
them get too cold. Temperatures below 50 degrees or drafts may cause the plant
to drop its buds. These plants need to be watered when the top of the soil feels
dry, but don’t over water. Constantly wet soil will cause root rot. When not blooming, the cacti will survive
longer without water, but if the stems feel limp and flat you need to water.
To get your Christmas or other holiday cactus to bloom again it needs a
summer vacation. After all danger of
frost has passed put it outside in its pot in a shady location in a partly or
lightly shaded area. If the light is too
bright the cacti will either turn reddish or bleach out. Make sure the plant will not sit in water
when it rains. Bring the plant back in
The Thanksgiving or Christmas cacti need lengthening nights and cool
temperatures at night to form buds. Keep
the plant in a cool room with bright light and no drafts for best results. The trip outside will generally have allowed
enough naturally shortening daylight to start buds forming. Easter cacti begin
blooming as the days start to get longer.
If you cannot put your plant outside for the summer, move it to a window
where the sunlight is not too hot and strong in the summer. By late summer it should be getting cooler
nights, about 55 degrees, and the same amount of light that is outside. You may
want to cover it when it is dark outside or move it to a closet. Sometimes just the cooler nights will start
buds forming. Once the buds have formed they usually continue to develop
despite getting light at night.
When the cacti have buds try not to move them to another location. This will sometimes result in dropped buds. Easter
cacti are a little harder to get to re-bloom and a little more sensitive to
drafts and improper watering, but worth the extra trouble.
In the late spring through blooming it doesn’t hurt to give these cacti a
little liquid house plant fertilizer, every other week is good. Stop fertilizing when blooming stops for 3-4
months. You can also pinch the plant
back to promote more branching. The
segments you pinch off can be rooted to start more plants. Stop pinching after June 1st or you will not
have buds in the fall.
Christmas and other holiday cacti can live for decades; many people have
plants 30 or more years old, passed from generation to generation. Every three or four years you may want to
re-pot the plant. Use a mixture designed
for cacti or mix peat, sand and vermiculite in equal amounts. These rainforest cacti like slightly acidic
conditions. If you use hard, alkaline
water to water them you may want to add 1 teaspoon of vinegar to each gallon of
water to increase the acidity or use an acidic plant food when you fertilize.
If you care for it well that small plant you got this Christmas may
become a large beautiful plant you pass to your grandchildren in 30 or 40