Every Christmas I end up with at least one plant gift. It’s usually something other than a Poinsettia because by now everyone who knows me also knows how much I hate them. What I actually hate is seeing a lot of them tossed out after the holidays when their colored brackets start to fall off (the colored part of the poinsettia is actually a leaf and not a flower petal).
Millions of poinsettias are grown every year just for the Christmas season and most are discarded after the holidays—it’s such a waste considering that so much energy is required to grow and bring them into flower for such a short season.
Poinsettias may be the most popular Christmas plant sold in the US but a close second is the Christmas cactus. It’s not a true cactus like those in the southwest, but belongs to the epiphyte family which includes some orchids and bromeliads. In their native Brazilian mountain forests, these plants would grow up in the tree canopy with their roots in the moss and detritus that collects in the crooks of branches. That should also give you a clue that they like very well-drained soil and need sunblock.
You can always tell an epiphyte (or tree-dwelling plant). Just look for little threadlike roots sticking out of the junctions between stem segments.
The plant family that all of these “holiday” cacti belong to is called Schlumbergera . There are several members of this plant family that are often confused. True Christmas cactus (schlmbergera bridgessii) bloom in December and have rounded segments (stems) which are not “toothed”. Thanksgiving cactus (Schlumbergera truncatus) bloom in November and have fleshy points along their segments resembling thorns or teeth.
If you received one of these flowering cacti for Christmas, chances are that it’s still in bloom with an abundant supply of buds to follow. You’re probably also wondering—what do I do now?
The first thing is to find a spot where it will get some good indirect light. The sun is low in the sky now so mine sit in either a western or eastern-facing window depending on where I have room. Indoor temps of 50 to 65 are ideal this time of year.
Let your cactus dry out slightly between waterings. A good trick I learned is to check the soil moisture by sticking my index finger in the soil almost up to the 1st knuckle. If it feels moist, you don’t need to water.
Don’t fertilize a new plant for at least six months. The commercial growers pump their plants full of nutrients to get them big quick so there’s lots left in the pot by the time it gets to your house. Older established plants can be fertilized with a half-strength solution of organic fertilizer once a month. I only fertilize my plants during the summer when the days are long and /or they’re in full growth mode.
After the flowers have faded, you’ll begin to see new leaf growth coming from the stem tips, where the flowers were. This is a good time to take cuttings and unlike spider plants, they won’t take over your house if you decide to grow a few extra plants. Just don’t get carried away--cause the new growth produces next year’s flowers.
All of my Christmas and Thanksgiving cacti leave home and go on vacation from May to October (on my covered porch and deck). They do need partial shade if left outside or the stems will sunburn. (Remember I said they used to live in trees and need sunblock?)
In order to get them to bloom on cue, I start cutting back on watering around September 1st. I water just enough to keep the stems from shriveling. I also do not turn on the porch lights so that the shorter days and cooler night temperatures can trigger blooming. Tiny round white buds start to appear early to mid-October at the tips of the stems. Once they’re formed I bring the plant back inside and go back to my regular watering schedule. Just be careful not to overwater or let the plant dry out too much-both will cause them to drop buds.
Stay tuned for Part II of What To Do With Holiday Leftovers.