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HOW TO GROW CHRISTMAS CACTUS
In this article, you will learn to choose, plant, grow, prune, and “troubleshoot” your Christmas Cactus. These easy instructions will ensure your success with growing this colorful Christmastime favorite, and get it to rebloom next year.
December is probably the month when you will bring your Christmas Cactus home from the store. That is, unless you are lucky enough to get a free plant from a friend or inherit one from your Grandma. These plants are fairly easy to grow, but when choosing your plant be sure to check for insects. Mealy bugs love to dine on them.
Remember that these are tropical plants, and do not respond well to wintertime cold. Bundle up your precious cargo for its trip to the car. If it gets nipped by frost, you will lose it.
CHRISTMAS CACTUS, THANKSGIVING CACTUS, EASTER CACTUS
Everyone loves a good surprise at Christmas time, and more than likely you are about to get one!
When you purchase a Christmas Cactus, that is not always the plant that you get. I often see that they will substitute Thanksgiving Cactus or even Easter Cactus. The plants carry these names because of their natural tendency to bloom around these holidays.
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Greenhouses are able to manipulate light and temperature to “control” the bloom period of these plants. If you have purchased a Thanksgiving Cactus, it will produce blooms at Christmastime the first year. But in the years to come, you are bound to have your hands full trying to get it to flower for December 25th.
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The shape of the leaves of these three plants will be slightly different, but any of them are very beautiful. The Christmas Cactus has flat leaves with a distinct resemblance to chain link. It can get fairly large if you don’t bother to prune it. After years of growth, it forms a “weeping willow” shape. And as your plant matures, it will drape way down over the sides of the pot like a fern.
Their colors range from red, white, pink, cream, and fuchsia to name but a few. The Christmas Cactus is long lived, often to 20 or 30 years old. They do not have a fragrance, but no one seems to even notice its absence.
WHERE TO DISPLAY YOUR PLANT
Choose the display location for your plant very carefully:
- Christmas Cactus loves bright, indirect light
- They do not like drafty locations or being near heat sources like vents, heaters, or fireplaces.
- Exposing the plant to high temperatures and direct sunlight will stunt its growth and can burn the leaves.
CARING FOR YOUR NEW CHRISTMAS CACTUS
If your plant came wrapped in decorative foil, remove it or feel the bottom of the pot to find the drainage holes. Poke holes in the foil to allow water to escape.
- Christmas Cactus likes the soil to be moist, but not soggy – – – like a wet sponge that has been squeezed out. As a general rule, if the top inch or so of soil is dry, water it.
- Always water at the base of the plant. Do not pour water over the green tendrils or into the center of the plant.
- Use lukewarm water for your Christmas Cactus, not water out of the refrigerator.
Overwatering causes root rot. This will kill your plant much faster than underwatering. Plus, Christmas Cactus will drop its flower buds and tendrils if it gets too dry.
- If you live in a very dry climate, or during a drought, keep an eye on the leaves. You might have to water your plant every few days.
- If your climate is cool, humid, or if your plant spends its entire life indoors, you should only water once a week.
Fertilize your Christmas Cactus while it is blooming!
These tropical plants need humidity. Sit the flower pot in a shallow pan of water filled with gravel. This keeps the pot from sitting directly in the water, which could kill it.
- You can lightly mist the leaves occasionally.
“DROPPED” FLOWER BUDS
It is natural for a few flower buds to drop off now and then. But if you start losing very many, you need to explore the problem.
Dropped buds are caused by stress:
- Soil that is too dry
- Not enough light exposure
- Not enough humidity
- Sudden temperature fluctuations
- Insect damage: This plant is susceptible to mealy bugs.
Stress could also be if you knock the plant over. Christmas Cactus can grow quite large, and their joints are very fragile. Do not keep it in high traffic areas frequented by kids, dogs, and clutzy adults. If a Christmas Cactus gets knocked over, it won’t bounce back as quickly as an Amaryllis!
If your plant starts to shed buds and blossoms, try:
- Adjusting the amount of water
- Add just a little fertilizer to the plant to try to perk it up.
- Give it longer exposure to light.
- Increase its humidity
If the cactus sheds its buds in Winter, you should still be able to get it to bloom the following year.
After your plant stops blooming, it needs a “rest.” Blooming takes a lot of effort, and during this time it needs to replenish its energy reserves. During this Dormant Period, they essentially “take a nap.”
- To induce Dormancy, stop watering for about 6 weeks to allow the plant to rest.
- Even though you do not water the plant during Dormancy, new growth will eventually appear. And when it does, that is when watering should be resumed.
- Do not fertilize during Dormancy, since the plant is not actively growing. (Once the plant has finished its “rest” period and has resumed growth (most likely in April) you can resume fertilizing with a liquid houseplant fertilizer.)
NOTE: Just imagine if you really need your sleep – – – but someone keeps waking you up. That is what happens if you water and fertilize a plant that really needs a rest period! Stop the water and fertilizer so the plant isn’t forced to continue “working” at growth and bud production.
- One month after blooming ceases, it is time to prune the plant. Trimming off the excess foliage is better for the plant. Having less foliage to support will allow the plant to begin storing up energy to produce buds next season.
- To prune, snap off a few y-shaped sections at least 3 segments long, from each stem. This will encourage new growth.
TO ROOT THE CUTTINGS
Don’t throw the cuttings away. Root them to create new plants. They make wonderful gifts!
- Allow the cutting segment to dry for several hours to harden off before planting it.
- Start your transplants in 3 inch pots.
- If possible, use the same type of soil the mother plant was potted in.
- If you can, add a little of the mother plant’s soil to the pot. Some people say it helps prevent soil shock.
- Push each segment deep enough into the soil to cover 1/2 of the first segment.
- Give it a little water just to moisten the soil. You don’t want it to develop root rot.
- In 4 to 6 weeks, the transplant should have a strong root system.
- Once it starts growing, you should keep it lightly fertilized.
- It should be fine in the 3 inch pot for 2 to 3 years, but if you notice it looks unhealthy, you need to re-pot sooner.
Your Christmas Cactus is pruned about a month after it stops blooming to benefit the plant during dormancy. Prune it again in June to encourage branching and more flowers.
Late Spring (June) is the best time to propagate cuttings because it is emerging from its winter rest period. At this time it is initiating new growth and the new plants you are trying to root will have a better chance to succeed.
REPOTTING YOUR CHRISTMAS CACTUS
Christmas Cactus can live in the same pot for a few years. They like to be root bound in sandy, well-drained soil. But, when the time comes:
- Repotting is best done between February and April. The reason is it’s the dormant time for the plant, and it is not trying to bloom.
- The flower pot must have a drainage hole.
WHAT TO DO WHEN YOUR PLANT RESUMES GROWING
- In late Spring (usually in June), place the plant outdoors in a shady spot or in an unheated porch until temperatures get below 50 degrees.
- Be sure to anchor your plant down so it doesn’t blow over with the wind.
- And be ready to dash outside and retrieve it if it rains. Remember that these plants don’t like to be soaked.
- In the event of a storm, make sure your plant doesn’t get “wind whipped.”
- To keep it indoors year-round, place it near a window or glass door.
- Maintain watering till late September.
- Fertilize once or twice a month from April through the middle of October with a liquid fertilizer that is specially formulated for blooming houseplants.
- Stop fertilizing after that or flower production may suffer.
REBLOOMING A CHRISTMAS CACTUS
There are three general recommendations on how to get your Christmas Cactus to bloom again:
- Using the Darkness Method
- Using the Temperature Control Method
- Using a combination of darkness and temperature control. This process seems to give the best results, although it is very labor intensive for the gardener.
Stop fertilizing your plant at the middle of October in preparation for blooming.
Stop watering altogether for the entire month of October. Yes, I know, – – – but this is what they call “tough love.” Getting your plant to start pumping out flower buds takes some effort. And withholding water tells your plant that it is time to “get down to business!”
THE DARKNESS METHOD
Using the Darkness Method means that on October 1, you bring your plant back indoors and keep it in total darkness for 12 to 14 hours per day. This could mean in a closet, under a cardboard box, covered by black plastic, or moved to a dark basement. This mimics a “short day.”
The Christmas Cactus is then moved to bright, indirect light for 8 to 10 hours per day. If the dark basement also has windows that would resolve the problem. You could let in the required amount of light each day. That way you wouldn’t have to keep running up and down basement steps each day carrying your plant.
This goes on from October 1 through the end of November.
Providing the right amount of total darkness can be inconvenient. You must make sure to be home each day just in time to put your plant “to bed” for the night. If you forget one day, just like with Poinsettias, you might lose your bloom season.
THE TEMPERATURE CONTROL METHOD
Using the Temperature Control Method means that on October 1, you bring your plant back indoors and provide it with 50 to 55 degree temperatures until the end of November, when it is then moved to a room temperature location for blooming. (Keep a thermometer near the plant.)
It is unlikely that you will want to have cold temperatures like that in your home late in the year, or anytime, for that matter. If you have a cool basement, that would resolve the problem.
Doing a COMBINATION of the two Methods means the plant will probably end up in a dark basement under strict temperature control.
AN UNCONVENTIONAL METHOD TO REBLOOM A CHRISTMAS CACTUS
At a temperature of 50 to 55 degrees or slightly lower, these plants lose their short-day requirement for flower bud setting, and become day length neutral.
Leave plants outside past October 1 until frost threatens (but not when frost occurs. Frost will kill them). They must be subject to nighttime temperatures of 45 to 55 degrees for at least 4 weeks.
- Keep a strict watch of the daily Weather Report.
- Check the outside temperature if you wake up in the night to make sure there wasn’t an unforeseen change in the weather.
- Once you have a minimum of 4 weeks at these temperatures, bring your plant indoors and keep it in bright, indirect window light.
- Don’t let your plant get too dry during this time. Keep an eye on the leaves.
NOTE: I might try this Method with a Poinsettia at some point. However, a Poinsettia can’t take temperatures much below 55 degrees. They are not as tough as a Christmas Cactus.
BUDDING AND BLOOMING
Once you begin to see flower buds forming (most likely in November), you can cease the light/dark schedule, and return to normal care. Gradually increasing the number of light exposure hours and amount of water will make this transition easier on your plant.
- Continue to water and feed while budding and blooming.
- Fertilize monthly.
- When it is getting ready to bloom, or while it is blooming, a daytime temperature of 70 degrees, with evening temperatures of 60 to 65 degrees is ideal.
Christmas Cactus normally blooms for 4 to 6 weeks. If conditions are right, your plant might bloom for 7 to 8 weeks.
HAPPY PLANTING! Susan