If you’re like me, someone will give you a Christmas cactus, and you’ll think ‘Wow! That’s beautiful!’ and display it proudly all holiday season. Then, you think, ‘Yikes! Now what do I do with it?’ Most people let them die. A couple years ago, someone gave me 2 of them, and I thought I would just learn a little more about them and try to (at least) keep them alive. I mean, how hard can it be? They sell them every year by the boatloads, and someone has to grow them.
Did you know that your Christmas Cactus is a Schlumbergera, native to the coastal mountains of Brazil? In Brazil, it’s called Flor de Maio (May Flower) because in the southern hemisphere it blooms in May, not December (everything’s upside-down, down there.)
In the wild, Christmas Cacti are either epiphytes or lithophytes. Epiphytes grow in trees and lithophytes grow in rocks.
To make the flowers last longer, keep your cactus in bright light and away from drafts and hot air (not talking about Uncle Fred, more like heating vents, fireplace, etc.)
Don’t water it too much! It’s not quite a desert cactus, but it is a succulent that can store water in its leaves. When the soil is dry about halfway down, water it well, although be sure to let it drain – don’t let it sit in water. However, they do like humidity. Sit it on a shallow tray of pebbles or gravel and put water in the gravel, about halfway up. Don’t cover the gravel with water – you don’t want the cactus pot touching the water. Or, you can just place a tray of water next to the plant. Outdoors or in a dry climate, you may need to water every 2-3 days. Indoors, or in a humid climate, water once per week. Fall & winter – water less frequently.
If the flower buds fall off, you either gave it too much water, or forgot to water it at all.
After the blooms fade, don’t neglect it! Just because it doesn’t have flowers, it’s still pretty!
To have the best/most flowers next year, keep it exposed to bright light as much as possible. It’s fine to put it outside in the summer, but not in direct full sun which may burn the leaves, and don’t leave it outside if it gets really hot (over mid-80’s.) Semi-shade or shade is fine. When you get ready to bring it in, in the fall, acclimate it by bringing it indoors for a few hours at a time, then gradually increasing the time inside.
If you prune it in February or March, it will branch out and get bushier (if it’s possible for a cactus to be bushy…) Just remove 2-3 sections of each stem with a sharp knife. And if you’re one of those never-throw-anything-away people, you can root the parts you cut off in some vermiculite, and then you’ll have a bunch of baby Christmas cacti that you can give to all your relatives next year!
If you need to re-pot your cactus, you must use soil that will drain very well. Any cacti and succulent potting soil is great, or else combine regular potting soil with half as much vermiculite or sand. Don’t re-pot it in the fall – it will bloom better if it’s a little root-bound. You want its energy directed toward making flowers, not growing bigger roots.
It likes a little fertilizer. April through September, you can give it some all-purpose houseplant fertilizer with no higher than 10% nitrogen (the first number should be 10 or less.) But in late October or Early November, give it a light amount of 0-10-10 (no nitrogen.)
Make it bloom – Christmas cacti bloom after getting bright light during the day, long periods of total darkness, cool periods of 50° or so at night, and limited water. Starting in October, put your cactus in complete darkness, say from 8P to 8A, in a cool place, give it bright light during the day, water less frequently than normal, and it will be blooming by the holidays!
After it blooms – give it a little rest, about 30 days, in the dark place with limited water.
Follow these guidelines and your Christmas Cactus should remain happy and healthy. Unfortunately, I forgot to give mine the proper attention this year, and one of them is blooming beautifully on one little corner of the plant, only. Like 4 flowers. Oops.