Christmas Cactus

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The Holiday season is here, with cheerful decorations, including unique holiday plants. One of my family’s favorites is the Christmas cactus. This plant is one of three popular holiday “cacti”: Easter, Thanksgiving, and Christmas. In nature, holiday cacti are tropical epiphytes from the mountainous regions of Brazil. Thanksgiving cacti typically start blooming in late fall and Christmas cacti around a month later. Thanksgiving cacti are often sold as “Christmas cacti” and these two holiday plants look very similar. Both fall under the genus Schlumbergera, have the same color scheme and require the same care. An Easter cactus starts producing flower buds in February.

Another difference between the three cacti in addition to the bloom time is found in the shape of the leaves. The Thanksgiving cactus (Schlumgera truncata) has very pointed and claw-shaped projections on the edges of the leaf. Think of it as comingImage of Christmas cactus to Thanksgiving with its own fork! The Christmas cactus (Schlumgera x buckleyi) has leaf projections which are more scalloped or teardrop shaped. The Easter cactus (Rhipsalidopsis gaertnerrii) has very rounded edges which are centralized on the leaf.

Of course, growing conditions affect flowering. Thanksgiving and Christmas cacti need cool temperatures (roughly 55 to 65 °F) to begin making flowers. If your plant is experiencing this temperature range the bloom cycle will trigger. All of these three cacti are known as “short day” plants and are most successful with longer periods of uninterrupted darkness, around 13 to 16 hours, and shortened days (less than 11 hours of light). If your plant has spent the summer outdoors or you’ve bought it from a florist or nursery keep it in a cool location and in a dark area until it sets buds. A seldom used bedroom is the ideal place.

The Christmas and Thanksgiving cactus require approximately 6 weeks of short days in order to bloom whereas the Easter cactus requires 8-12 weeks of short days to bloom. When the little flower buds appear, bring it into a warmer, more frequently used area to enjoy the beautiful flowers. Keep it away from drafts, too much heat, too much water or direct sunlight to avoid losing the flower buds or. The plant’s soil should be dry to one inch below the surface before watering and skip the fertilizer until after it’s done blooming. Good drainage is extremely important for propagating as well as for holiday forcing. These plants are pretty disease resistant unless overwatered, which makes them susceptible to attack by a number of stem and root rot organisms including Pythium, Phytophthora, Fusarium and Rhizoctonia.

There are reports of plants being handed down from generation to generation and being over a hundred years old. Mine came from my mother-in-law and begins budding around her birthday in early December. She had it for many decades before that and its blooms always bring back fond family memories. Share this plant this season with someone special. It is a great way to start a meaningful family tradition of your own!

Minda Daughtry is Horticulture Agent for North Carolina Cooperative Extension in Lee County.