Caring for Christmas Cactus

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The exotic flowers holiday cactus produces blooms that in shades of white, red, magenta, pink, and peach.

The exotic flowers holiday cactus produces blooms that in shades of white, red, magenta, pink, and peach.

Cacti are usually not at the top of most people’s gift list, to give or receive. This is probably because they are generally thought of as prickly desert dwellers. Not all cacti fit this description, especially not the colorful, completely thorn-free, easy care holiday cactus. Developed by crossing Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Easter cacti, the modern holiday cactus has larger flowers than its parents, blooms in both winter and spring, and would make a great gift for anyone.

Holiday Cactus Care

Holiday cacti were developed from species of Schlumbergera, a tree dwelling cactus native to the tropical rainforests of Brazil. In the wild they grow propped between tree branches or in rock crevices, absorbing nutrients from rain water and decaying leaves that get caught among their roots. When grown as houseplants, holiday cactus need to be grown in a light, well drained potting soil and bright light. They will often bloom best when potbound, so keeping them in a container that looks slightly small is perfectly fine.

Keeping these plants evenly moist is the real key for success. They especially resent staying wet and will rot if kept continuously soggy. Holiday cacti should be watered when the top inch of their potting soil appears dry and the container they are growing in feels light when lifted. Plants sitting in decorative containers or cachepots that do not have drainage holes should be taken out and placed in a sink before watering. Add water until it begins to drain out of the bottom of the pot, then allow the plant to drain for a few minutes before returning it to its decorative container. When watering plants in containers that have saucers underneath, be sure to pour out any excess water the saucer captures after each watering.

Because of their tropical nature, holiday cacti prefer to stay between 60 and 80 degrees. They can be placed outdoors in a lightly shaded area in spring after the threat of frost has passed. Frequency of watering and fertilization for holiday cacti varies with the seasons. When plants are actively growing from spring through fall, they should be watered frequently and fertilized with a water soluble fertilizer every couple of weeks, or given a pelleted, slow release fertilizer at the beginning of the season.

During winter, when temperatures are cooler, holiday cacti will require less water and fertilization is not necessary. Pruning plants after blooming by pinching a few leaf segments off each branch helps to keep plants bushy and can be a source for new plants. Holiday cacti are very easy to root, and any leaf segments that break off or are pruned off can be stuck into a small container of potting soil where they will root within a few weeks.     

Problem Solving

The most common problem encountered when growing holiday cactus is failure to rebloom. This is most often caused by a sudden change in temperature or moisture, or exposure to light at the wrong time. Holiday cacti are short day plants; this means they will only form flower buds when exposed to over 13 hours of continuous darkness each night. Any light that interrupts this continuous dark period can stop flower formation, even if it is from a street lamp or car headlights.

After night lengths reach 13 hours (October) make sure to keep holiday cacti in a location that stays dark all night. Once flower buds are set they will be visible at the tips of each branch. If a holiday cactus dries out or is exposed to very warm or very cool temperatures (over 90 or under 50 degrees) after its flower buds are set they will often drop their buds and fail to bloom. To prevent this, pay close attention to watering and keep plants at moderate temperatures when flower buds are present.

Learn More!

Learn more about holiday cactus care and see images here: http://okeechobee.ifas.ufl.edu/News%20columns/Christmas%20Cactus.htm

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Written By

Photo of Charlotte GlenCharlotte GlenState Coordinator, NC Extension Master Gardener Program (919) 515-1226 charlotte_glen@ncsu.eduHorticultural Science - NC State University
Updated on Dec 17, 2013
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