By Sharon Faircloth, Jefferson County Master Gardener
There are several blooming plant options during the winter holidays. A unique option is the Christmas Cactus. The Schlumbergera is actually an epiphyte native to the coastal mountains of Brazil where they grow on trees and in the cracks of rocks. The delicate 1-3” blooms cover the stems in cascading colors from bright white, pale peach to deep fuchsia to bright red.
The genus is named for Frederic Schlumberger who grew a variety of the cactus at his home in Rouen, France. While most often referred to as the Christmas Cactus, a Thanksgiving Cactus (Schlumbergera truncata) blooms in September and have pointy stems. Christmas Cactus (Schlumbergera Buckleyi) have a more rounded stems and bloom later in December and January. The Easter Cactus (Schlumbergera gaertneri) has more of a scalloped leaf stem.
Growing the cactus is usually quite easy, about the only bad things you can do to them is over water or give them too much sun! For most of the year, watering once a week is plenty of attention. They like lots of cool indirect light and once they begin to bloom, only water when dry. Blooms last about 3-6 weeks and once the plant is finished blooming, you can fertilize. The nub left after the bloom drops will grow into another section of the stem.
Unlike the traditional holiday poinsettia, the cactus doesn’t take hiding in the closet to rebloom. The cactus will require the cooler temperatures and short days to bloom but the plant never stops growing and it’s not unusual to live 20 years or more.
To stimulate growth, avoid over watering and make sure your pot is not too large for the root system. The plant prefers well-draining soil like a succulent mix in a terra cotta pot. To add humidity, place pebbles in a tray under the pot making sure the pot does not sit directly in water. Think how they live in nature in rock crags. You can propagate by snipping the stem at the joint and placing directly in the soil/medium.
There are few issues in growing the cactus. If you have blooms drop before opening, you are letting the plant get too dry or possibly too much of a temperature change. If the leaf stems grow red, there is too much direct sunlight. If the plant base becomes woody, no worries, it’s normal!
The really lovely thing about the holiday cactus is that they often bloom more than once a year. Some months after the winter holidays, you may be surprised by another blush of blooms. For a low maintenance unique plant, try this cactus. It’s readily available in a whole palette of colors and will reward you throughout the year.