by Ken Lain, the mountain gardener
Give your friends and family a gift enjoyed for years, season after season. This delightful Zygocactus, or Christmas Cactus, comes in festive colors and sizes. A swirl of colors in tones of golden, pink, red, and white make Watters Christmas Cactus a beautiful flowering plant for the holiday season. Our head grower has an eye for color, and just in time for the holiday festivities. You’ll enjoy the lush colors that these blooms offer.
You might think a cactus makes for an unusual Christmas plant. When the Christmas cactus (Schlumbergera bridgessii) is covered in blooms, it is a most welcome sight in the middle of winter.
With minimal care, your Christmas cactus will bloom on its own. However, it might not bloom for the holidays. If you want your plant to be on full display during the holiday season, you will have to force it into dormancy about 8 weeks before you want flowers. It sounds complicated, but it really does not require much effort. The hardest part is remembering to do it.
GETTING YOUR CHRISTMAS CACTUS TO BLOOM
To have your Christmas cactus bloom at Christmas time, you will probably need to force it by first sending it into dormancy and then coaxing it out.
Follow these steps, starting in mid-fall.
In mid-October, reduce watering. Only water when the soil feels dry about an inch below the surface. Do not fertilize while forcing.
Cool – Keep your Christmas cactus cool. Ideally, you want it at 50 to 55 F.
Limit Light – Begin to limit the amount of light the plant receives. The plant can remain in indirect sunlight during the day, but it will need at least 12 to 14 hours of total darkness for the flower buds to develop at night. (If the room is warmer than the ideal 50 to 55 F, give your plant an extra couple of hours of darkness each day.) Place your Christmas cactus in a room or closet with a door that remains closed at night. If light gets under the door, you will need to take the additional step of covering the plant with a dark cloth or bag. Continue this treatment for about 6 to 8 weeks. At that point, you should see flower buds developing on the stems.
Flower buds – Once you see flower buds, move your Christmas cactus out of the darkness and near a bright window. Ensure it is not near any drafts, or the cold will cause it to drop its buds.
The flowers should start opening within a couple of weeks. Each flower will remain open for at least 6 days, probably more, and the plant should continue to bloom for 4 to 6 weeks.
Unlike the desert-loving cacti many of us are used to, the Christmas cactus is a native of tropical rainforests and needs regular water to remain healthy.
The flattened leaves are actually stemmed segments that hang and drape from containers and baskets. The flowers will form at the ends of these stems, so the more stems your plant has, the more flowers. The traditional flower color was red; now you can find them here at Watters Garden Center in many flower colors, including red, pink, lavender, and peach.
To encourage more stems, grow your Christmas cactus as a hanging plant or place it somewhere where it has room to drape. Don’t worry about rubbing up against it. Christmas cactus plants do not have thorns.
Here’s what your Christmas cactus needs to grow well.
- Light: They prefer a diffused light, although Christmas cacti sitting in a bright, chilly window have been known to bloom profusely. They are very adaptable at adjusting to growing conditions.
- Water: Water the plant thoroughly, allowing the excess water to run out through the drainage hole. Allow the soil to dry almost completely between waterings. Never let the soil sit wet. You will know if the soil is too dry when the leaves start to pucker and shrivel.
- Humidity: The Christmas cactus also needs humidity, primarily when grown in heated homes’ dry conditions. Either mist it or place a tray of pebbles sitting in the water underneath the plant. Do not let the water touch the bottom of the pot.
- Fertilizer: Feed monthly with Watters Root & Grow at half the recommended strength. Withhold this cactus food when the buds set and resume after flowering.
- Temperature: The Christmas cactus isn’t fussy about temperature. Ideally, they like it warm 70 to 80 F. During the growing season and cooler 55 to 65 F while setting buds.
- Keep away from frequently opened doors and drafty windows. They don’t like sudden drafts and will drop their buds or flowers if exposed to them.
- Pruning lightly after flowering re-energizes the plant.
- Christmas cacti tend to bloom better if they are kept slightly pot bound.
- Don’t be surprised if your Christmas cactus blooms sporadically throughout the year. A happy Christmas cactus does that.
- This plant is extraordinarily long-lived and propagates easily from cuttings.
- Older plants are even more prolific bloomers than new Christmas Cacti.
- Christmas cacti seem to thrive on neglect. Don’t be tempted to fuss over them.