Christmas cacti come by their name honestly. They burst into bloom during the holidays and add garden color whether they’re indoors or out. These plants are members of the genus Schlumbergera and have long branches with pointed joints. They’ve become popular because they bloom in many colors, including red, white, and pink, and the blooms are even more striking because they’re one of the few plants that blossom in the depth of winter. Read on to learn how to care for your Christmas cactus and keep it healthy and blooming year after year.
The Story of the Christmas Cactus
Horticulturally speaking, according to the Cherokee County UGA Cooperative Extension, «The ancestors of today’s Christmas cactus were discovered in southeast Brazil in 1819. The first to be found, Schlumbergera truncata, flowers in October and November and became what is now called the «Thanksgiving cactus». Another, the Schlumbergera russelliana, discovered in 1837, blooms between February and April and became the «Easter cactus». A hybrid of these two became the first «Christmas Cactus».»
Because it blooms at Christmastime, there’s a popular legend about the Christmas cactus that goes something like this: A Christian missionary living abroad prays for a sign to illustrate the miracle of Christmas, and the next day he wakes to find the land around him filled with blooming cacti that are then used to decorate the altar in celebration of the season. They’re a vibrant bloom that appears in the bleak midwinter, a phenomenon which has associations of rebirth and renewal, which are apt during in the holidays.
Christmas Cactus Care
According to The New Southern Living Garden Book, «In the wild, these cacti live on trees, as epiphytic orchids do. In the home, they are dependable, easy, long-lived houseplants.» These plants appreciate humidity, so they grow best in moist areas. They require moderate to regular water and soil that is both well-drained and evenly, continually moist. According to the Cherokee County UGA Cooperative Extension, «The plant is not a true cactus and is not quite as drought tolerant as the name infers. However, it is a succulent plant and can store a reasonable quantity of water in the leaves.»
In terms of sunlight requirements, these plants like partial sun or partial shade with some bright, indirect morning light while they’re flowering. A rich soil that has been amended with plenty of organic matter provides an ideal planting environment. They also appreciate cool temperatures in the 50s and 60s. These cacti can grow both indoors and outdoors; outside, they can be used as features in rock gardens, pots, and hanging baskets.
A Dose of Darkness
In order to initiate flowering, Christmas cacti need prolonged periods of darkness in the weeks leading up to the blooming season. They share this characteristic with another winter-blooming plant, the holiday-favorite poinsettia. These plants require long, dark nights, and short days with moderate light to signal to them that it’s time to flower. A good rule of thumb is that the Christmas cactus should receive at least 14 hours of total darkness each day in the weeks leading up to bloom time, i.e. during the month of November.
Types of Christmas Cactus
What we know as Christmas cactus goes by the scientific name Schlumbergera x buckleyi. It grows about one foot high and two feet wide, with arching branches and scalloped edges. The flowers of this plant are tube-shaped and often pink, purple, or red. To encourage blooming at Christmas, The New Southern Living Garden Book recommends giving the «plant cool night temperatures (50-55 degrees) and about 14 hours of darkness per day during November.» A related cactus that blooms a bit earlier is Schlumbergera truncata, or Thanksgiving cactus. It has bright green branches and flowers with pointed petals that bloom in a variety of colors, including yellow, pink, white, coral, and orange.
Do you have a Christmas cactus? We think they’re not only great holiday decor but also wonderful gifts for friends and family during the holiday season.