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Christmas Cactus

A pink-blooming Christmas cactus near a sunny window

One of the most popular indoor plants around Christmas time is the beautiful Schlumbergera bridgesii, otherwise known as the Christmas cactus. This flowering epiphytic cactus may bloom anywhere from early November into February, depending on the light and temperature conditions, making this a very attractive choice for homes lacking a bit of natural plant color in the winter months. This wonderful plant may live for 20 years or more, and is often passed down from one generation to another.

Christmas cacti are composed of short, leaf-like segments that form gracefully arching stems, with their unusual, yet beautiful flowers borne at the ends of the branches. The come is a variety of colors, from rich reds to wintery whites, with yellow, orange, and pink hues available as well.

Though they are associated with some of our coldest months, Schlumbergera have surprising tropical roots which differentiate their care from the normal cacti we associate with, dry, arid areas. They live up in trees in the humid rain forests of South America, and thus require more moisture than a desert cactus, as well as protection from the mid-day sun. Because we prefer less humid conditions in our homes, Christmas cactus can sometimes struggle to get adequate moisture for optimal blooming. An easy way to correct this is to place the pot and saucer containing your cactus over a small container with pebbles. Pour water over the pebbles just enough so that the water remains beneath the top most layer of pebbles. This water will slowly evaporate, providing just enough humidity to satisfy your Christmas cactus.

Christmas cactus uses a system of thermos-photoperiodic responses in order to trigger blooming. This simply means that they use temperature and day length as triggers for blooming. This is wonderful news, as you can help, or delay, a Christmas cactus along in its bloom cycle. Cool night temperatures at or around 50 – 55 degrees is the best trigger, but their blooms can also be triggered by lack of light. Uninterrupted darkness of 13 hours or more in temperatures above 55 degrees will also trigger the cactus to bloom. By covering your cactus with a black cloth or storing it in a lightless room (a closet or dark basement, for example) you can force the cactus to bloom earlier if you’d like, leading to beautiful blooms while enjoying your Thanksgiving Day meal. Likewise, keeping it exposed to more light and warmer temperatures later in the season will stunt bloom production, allowing you to have blooms farther along in the winter months through Christmas.

When in bloom, flowers will last longer if the plant is kept in a cool, bright location, away from drafts or heat vents. Soil should dry moderately, and the plant requires good drainage. After flowering, allow the plant to rest for a few weeks, and then begin fertilizing regularly over the spring and summer with a flowering formula. Keep the plant moderately pot bound, and prune it in the spring to promote branching.

Christmas cactus are a great gift idea to brighten up someone's home. They're fairly easy to maintain and last for years with the right care, so they're a great plant for every situation.