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 an attractive choice for homes lacking a bit of natural plant color in the winter months. This beautiful 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 are born at the ends of the branches. They come in 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 has surprising tropical roots that differentiate their care from the natural cacti we associate with, dry, arid areas. They live up in trees in the humid rainforests 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 wet 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 plant over a small container with pebbles. Pour water over the rocks just enough so that the water remains beneath the topmost layer. This water will slowly evaporate, providing just enough humidity to satisfy your Christmas cactus.
Christmas cactus uses a system of thermos-photoperiodic responses to trigger blooming, meaning that they use temperature and day length as triggers for blooming. These triggers are excellent news, as you can help, or delay, a Christmas cactus along in its bloom cycle. Cold night temperatures at or around 50 – 55 degrees is the best trigger, but their blooms can also trigger with lack of light. The uninterrupted darkness of 13 hours or more in temperatures above 55 degrees will also trigger the cactus to bloom. By covering your Christmas cactus with a black cloth or storing it in a lightless room (a closet or dark basement, for example), you can force it 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 is a great gift idea to brighten up someone’s home. They’re relatively easy to maintain and last for years with the right care, so they’re an excellent plant for every situation.