Care and feeding of the Christmas cactus

By Joan Hunt - ReminderNews Managing Editor
- posted Wed., Nov. 16, 2011
Contributed
- Contributed Photo

The Christmas cactus  at my grandmother’s house bloomed when it was supposed to, exploding into beautiful pink blossoms as a harbinger of my favorite holiday season. When I got a house of my own, she gave me a cutting of it, but it took me several years to get it to perform the way hers did.

The Christmas cactus, which originated in Brazil,  needs to be kept in a cool room where the temperature stays around 50 to 60 degrees for about five to eight weeks preceding the holidays. The plant should also receive between 12 and 15 hours of darkness every day during this period. Some people like to put their Christmas cactus in a dark closet at night. Keep the plant somewhat dry until buds appear.

Once the flower buds begin to show, you can bring them back out into the light. At this point, they should receive a moderate amount of water, but don’t let them get too wet. (If the leaves become limp and flabby, you are overwatering.) Plants should not be exposed to direct heat, extreme light, or cold drafts.

What you do with a Christmas cactus after the holidays is almost as important as before. Once the plant has stopped blooming, withhold water for about six weeks, which allows it to rest. In the spring or early summer, you can prune the cactus by pinching off sections at the joints. This will promote branching. (This is also how to start new plants. Plant the pruned section in a commercially-packaged potting mix for succulent plants or mix your own with two parts plain potting soil and one part clean sand or vermiculite.)

The best environment for a Christmas cactus is a pot with rich, well-drained soil placed in a location that is not near a door to the outside, a fireplace or other drafty area. Christmas cactus is a tropical plant, which thrives on being thoroughly watered and then not watered again until the top inch of soil becomes dry.

The plant requires about 50 to 60 percent humidity, so some people like to place a vase, glass or tray of water near the plant, or you might use a humidity tray. A humidity tray can be created by filling a waterproof saucer with gravel, then adding water halfway up. Place the pot on the gravel surface.

With a little forethought and strategic aftercare, a Christmas cactus is one of those gifts that keeps on giving (by blooming), year after year.


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