We take part in many horticultural holiday traditions in the United States, but there’s only one that is beautiful, long-lasting and great for gifting: the Christmas cactus.
Your Christmas tree will eventually turn brown and end up on the curb along with your wreath. Your poinsettia will lose its eye-catching color. But this unique winter-flowering plant can live for literally hundreds of years. Also, cuttings are often given as gifts and passed down through generations, making them the perfect candidate for a special holiday tradition.
There are three popular holiday cacti: the Easter cactus, the Thanksgiving cactus, and the Christmas cactus. Though they can be difficult to tell apart, there are a few subtle differences. The “leaves” of the Christmas cactus will be softly scalloped or bluntly serrated, while the Thanksgiving cactus will be sharply serrated with a claw-like projection on its edges. The Easter variety has very rounded leaf edges.
Cultivating a Christmas Cactus
If you have an established plant, you can actually coax these holiday cacti into blooming with just a few tricks, but you need to get started on this well before your desired bloom date. About six to eight weeks before you want to see some color, you’ll want to make sure your plant is moved to a cool, dark location.
Though the Christmas cactus is native to the rainforests of Brazil, they are actually stimulated to bloom with low lighting and cool weather. Fifty-five degrees is ideal. You’ll also want to make sure they receive 12 to 14 hours of darkness a day. This seems counter-intuitive, but these conditions actually encourage the cactus to put on heavy buds, because the plant thinks it’s dying. In an effort to reproduce, the cactus will bloom.
During this period, water sparingly—only when the soil dries out. At every other watering or so, you might want to use a gentle fertilizer higher in phosphorous. You’ll notice a lot of little buds developing on your plant in no time.
Once your plant is heavy with buds and ready to bloom, put it on display and it will be sure to wow your guests and add a burst of natural color to your Christmas decor. These plants can be kept to bloom on their own time on a shady porch or in your house. Just be sure to maintain mild conditions, dappled sunlight and a humid but not overly wet environment.
A Green Gift to Others
Of course, if you plan to gift cuttings of your cactus, you’ll want to avoid taking the cuttings while the cactus is in bloom or heavy with buds. A few weeks before Christmas is a great time to take the cuttings and propagate individual plants. Better yet, if you get them repotted before Thanksgiving and gift them on turkey day, your friends just might get lucky and have their own blooms by Christmas
These cacti are “epiphytes,” like the very trendy air plant. In their natural environment, they grow on other plants. As such, they prefer a loamy potting mix over traditional soil. Prepare a pot with a moist (but not soaked) cactus or succulent blend soil. You can find this at most garden centers. You can also make it yourself by mixing your own blend of 50 percent peat moss and 50 percent perlite.
Look for healthy leaf segments on your mature Christmas cactus. Then, choose a piece with at least two or three healthy segments above the bottom. The more leaves, the better, as long as you don’t leave the parent plant with too few.
Carefully twist the lower leaf segment off of the plant, being sure to get the very bottom of the segment where it attaches to the top of the one below. You should pull out a small root with it. Then bury the cutting about half way up the bottom segment into the prepared pot, just deep enough so that it can hold itself up.
Some people elect to let the cutting “heal” overnight before repotting it. Your baby cacti will need to be watered or misted only when the top layer of soil is dry. Watch it closely though—this soil type dries out quickly. Once a good root system is established (after about two weeks) you can water more heavily—but remember these plants do not like wet feet.
This plant truly embodies the spirit of the season: offering up beautiful cold-season color, requiring virtually no work, and even doubling as a sentimental and lasting Christmas gift.