CHRISTMAS CACTUS – A HOLIDAY FAVORITE
The brightly colored flowers of the Christmas cactus instantly bring warmth during the chilling winter season. When the holiday season is over, it is resting time for the Christmas cactus. Allow it the rest it deserves and prepare it for the next holiday season. These plants are relatively maintenance free, but once you learn its few requirements, you will have a live holiday plant that can be passed down from generation to generation.
This plant is tropical in nature and belongs to the zygo-cactus family. Though the name suggests that it originates from the cactus family, its environmental requirements are quite different from the desert cactus. The Christmas cactus is an epiphyte that is a native to Central and South America and it naturally grows in the crook of tree trunks and branches. The organic matter trapped in the cervices of trees provides the required moisture for the growth of the cactus.
Hybridizers have come up with new Christmas cactus varieties, which has resulted in the introduction of three cacti, which are thanksgiving, Easter and Christmas cactus. Care of Christmas cactus has to be taken to ensure that we enjoy the blooms for a long time.
For the Christmas cactus to grow and flourish, optimal growing conditions must be provided. Though the cactus performs well under average home conditions with moderate care, there are various factors that can deter the plant from blooming.
1. Water: Being succulent in nature, this plant stores a reasonable amount of water in its leaves. Over watering can shun the growth of the Christmas cactus. The best way to see whether the plant needs watering is to use your finger: If it feels dry, water. If it feels moist, wait a day and check again. Try to avoid a weekly or calendar watering schedule, since you may be watering an already over-watered plant. When watering, set the plant in your kitchen sink and use your spray attachment and wash the leaves while watering the soil. A tepid water temperature will avoid shocking the plant with either too cold or too warm water. Allow the plant to drain completely. If the plant is allowed to sit in the drained water or in a tray for too long (I am talking days, not minutes), the roots tend to decay. During the summer season, ensure that the cactus is watered every 2-3 days, while in the winter months, the need is less and so is water.
2. Light: If the leaves of the cactus have turned red, it simply means that it has been exposed to direct sunlight. The Christmas cactus requires indirect bright sunlight. To promote blooming during the fall, the plant needs less sunlight and 12 hours of uninterrupted darkness. In New Jersey I move the cactus outside in spring once the danger of frost has passed, then leave it outside just before the first frost, and under a protected over hang.
3. Temperature: The optimum temperature for growth is between 60 to 70°C. Average to high humidity creates the most favorable conditions. The soil moisture levels can be attained by placing the pot in a tray filled with water and pebbles, making sure that the water level does not reach the bottom of the pot.
4. Fertilizer: Use a liquid houseplant fertilizer (I prefer Schultz 10-15-10 fertilizer + micronutrients, which can be found in most supermarkets and home centers) at half the rate it suggests every 2-3 weeks in the winter. Over use of the fertilizer can burn the roots of the cactus, and remember that during the winter months, the plants are actively growing less than the spring/summer/fall months.
To promote the Christmas cactus to branch out, it is important to prune it. Remove some sections of the stem by using either your fingers or a sharp knife in the spring. To propagate, push the cut sections from your pruning into a 3 inch pot that contains the same soil as the parent cactus. A well drained soil such as an African Violet mix will be perfect. Remember that these are not desert cacti, and potting them into a sandy soil will not work. Ensure that the cut sections have 2-3 joined segments, and push the first section into the soil. The roots will develop in 4-6 weeks.
My Christmas cactus has been a guaranteed bloomer and show stopper every year, and you can have the same success with this maintenance free holiday favorite.