By Melanie Mathieson
The Gardening Guru
The Christmas cactus makes a great holiday plant gift, and you also may see this variety on sale at other holiday times of the year, like Easter and Mother’s Day.
Although there really is a variety called the Christmas cactus and one called the Easter cactus, both species often are sold at each holiday and are assigned the name of the holiday rather than their correct species name.
But whichever species you have, rest assured they are from the same family, look very similar, and are cared for in the same way.
This type of cactus from the Schlumbergera spp. family is found in the wild, not in a desert but attached to trees in moist woodlands and jungles. The cacti from this family are referred to as forest cacti.
This type of cactus looks very different from the spiny cacti found in the desert. And because they come from naturally moist habitats, they have different care requirements than their spiny cousins.
The typical forest cacti has leaf-like stems, more similar to succulent cacti. These leaf-like stems take on a trailing growth habit and therefore are well-suited to hanging baskets.
The true Christmas cactus (Schlumbergera truncata) has leaf-like stems that are distinctly toothed and are a deep-dark green. This cacti species can flower in pink, white, red, and purple so it is easily identified by the colours of its blooms since the Easter cactus (Schlumbergera gaertneri) blooms only in scarlet.
The Easter cacti also has leaf-like stems that are scalloped as opposed to toothed at their edges. The stems also are a deep dark green colour.
As with many cacti, this family also are shy bloomers. When you see the cacti in the nursery or store for sale, they are already in bloom. The nursery grower has manipulated the plant to bloom during a certain period before offering them for sale.
Once you get them home and into their new environment, the blooms can fade quickly and may never be seen again.
Part of the fun of owning and growing this type of cacti is to see if it will bloom again in your home. I have seen many of these plants over the years in people’s home, with some blooming annually without fail while others never bloom again.
Most homeowners with repeatedly blooming cacti claim they do nothing special to it. But just in case that is not always the truth, I’ve included the care for this type of cacti for the period in which it blooms, as well as the process to follow to ensure blooms each year in the future.
Unlike desert cacti, which like hot and intense sun, forest cacti are grown in the shade of a tropical forest so they need a window that is either east- or west-facing.
A south-facing window is too hot for this type of cacti unless you have heat filtering window coverings or can place the cacti away from the window.
The ideal temperature for this cacti is 55-70 degrees F (generally okay in normal house temperatures).
Make sure you do not expose the cacti to any drafts, such as opening the doors and windows in winter, or put it near a heat register or fireplace. And especially make sure the plant is well protected from the elements when you are transporting it home in the winter months.
Make sure it is wrapped thoroughly in newspaper or other paper wrap before leaving the nursery or store, place it in a warm car (though not near the heater), and drive it straight to its destination.
Once home, place the cacti in its ideal location.
Because this type of cacti naturally is found in humid habitat, your cacti will benefit with regular water misting, applied every few days with a plastic bottle with a misting nozzle.
Water your cacti each time the soil begins to feel dry to the touch. Do not let the cacti get too dry but don’t over-water while flowering or it will begin to drop its blooms.
Once the cacti is finished blooming, this is the time to repot it and place it in a larger one. Use a good quality sterilized potting soil each time you repot (a mixture for general houseplants is fine).
Once repotted, it is time for the annual dormancy/rest period for the plant. This period is very important in order for it to produce blooms next year.
At this time, place the cacti in a cooler spot than normal, but not below 55 degrees F, and only water every few weeks for the next eight-12 weeks.
After at least eight weeks, you will notice new buds forming on the plant. When you notice these new buds, move the cacti back to its regular spot and begin to water more frequently but only as the soil dries out.
Prior to flowering and during flowering, you can fertilize the cacti as you would your other flowering houseplants, following the directions on the fertilizer carefully.
Soon those buds will develop into flowers. Then after flowering, repeat the directions above.
Keep in mid that your cacti may not bloom at exactly holiday time, but close to that similar time of year. In the nursery, they are further manipulated with light, water, and fertilizer in order to bloom in time for the holidays.
Some gardeners like to place their cacti outside in the summer months. It is okay to do this, but it may disrupt your flowering schedule.
Make sure all signs of frost are gone before you place it outside in the summer and never place it in the direct sun. A shady spot is best outdoors, like hanging from a branch of a large tree in your yard.
Just be aware that once placed outside, these cacti become a desirable food for slugs so keep your eyes peeled for any sign of these pests.
Once summer starts to wind down, bring your plant back into the house. Give it a gentle shower with tepid water in the bathtub to make sure it is clear of any outdoor insects before returning it to its favourite spot.
I hope that with these tips, you will enjoy your Christmas/Easter cacti past the holidays. I also hope you follow the timetable in order for it to bloom again for many years to come.