A Timely Bloom: How to Care for a Christmas Cactus
With the holidays quickly approaching, what better plant with which to decorate than the Christmas cactus? Its bright colors and perfectly-timed blooming schedule make it a popular choice for holiday decor. From a small display in your home to an ornate office scene, this plant is sure to delight.
When you think of a cactus, you probably think of a spiky green plant that lives in the desert and tolerates long periods of heat and limited rainfall. That is not the case with the Christmas cactus. Native to the rainforests of Brazil, the Christmas cactus, or Schlumbergera, is used to a great deal of water and shade. Outside of the rainforest, the Christmas cactus is often passed down through generations, as it can live for 20 to 30 years.
How to get the Christmas cactus to bloom
The Christmas cactus gets its name from its tendency to bloom right around the holiday. It is a part of the holiday cacti family, alongside the Thanksgiving cactus and Easter cactus (you can probably guess when these plants bloom).
The Christmas cactus blooms around Christmas because the conditions at this time of year are often conducive to its blooming requirements. That being said, sometimes it needs a little encouragement, especially if you’re attempting to get it to bloom at a different time of year.
Preparations for the big bloom should begin 6 to 8 weeks before the desired bloom time frame. Christmas cacti are short-day plants, meaning they bloom when the day is short, and consequently when the night is long. This just happens to be the state of days around the Christmas holiday.
During the dark period, even indoor lighting or artificial lighting from the outdoors can disrupt the blooming process. You may want to cover your cactus at night to block light from getting in. The Christmas cactus is relatively picky about the temperature of its environment when preparing to bloom. Do not expose the cactus to temperatures under 55℉ for an extended period of time. Moreover, the plant will not flower in temperatures warmer than 68℉.
Caring for the Christmas cactus during flowering
It is important not to let the Christmas cactus dry out during flowering. Its requirement for hydration is even higher than usual when flowers are present. When the top inch of soil is dry, water the plant thoroughly, but be cognizant of overwatering so it does not get root rot. The flowering period can last anywhere from 4 to 6 weeks, with each flower lasting approximately 6 to 9 days. Once the cactus has flowered, it can be kept in indirect light.
Caring for the Christmas cactus in the off-season
In the summer, the Christmas cactus should be placed in a shady spot, to avoid direct light that can burn and dehydrate it. Prune the plant in June to encourage growth. The Christmas cactus can be fertilized once a month from April to October.
Propagating and re-potting the Christmas cactus
Pieces removed from the cactus can be rooted for propagation. Pieces should have at least three stem segments. At least one segment should be buried in order for the piece to take root. This process usually takes about 4 to 6 weeks.
Whether you’re re-potting your cactus because it outgrew its prior pot, it contracted root rot, or you just got tired of the look of the old pot, make sure you’re using a light soil. Both gardening and potting soil have been known to work well for this plant, as long as the roots have space to “breathe.”
Is the Christmas cactus poisonous?
The Christmas cactus is not poisonous to humans or cats and dogs. That is not to say you should go feeding your dog Christmas cactus leaves, however. The fibrous plant material of the cactus can cause vomiting and diarrhea in mass quantities.
Christmas cactus problems
Like other plants, the Christmas cactus can fall victim to insect problems and disease. Mealybugs and soft brown scale are the most common pests, but luckily they are fairly easy to eliminate. Remove these pests with a cotton ball soaked in rubbing alcohol.
Stem and root rot can also be a problem for Christmas cacti, caused by overwatering. Your plant may be experiencing this if it appears wilted and is dull/faded in color. To save the cactus, trim off the infected areas and repot in fresh soil.
If your Christmas cactus is dropping unopened flower buds, a number of things could be at the root of the problem. If the humidity is too low or the soil is too dry, the buds may drop. Additionally, an abrupt change in temperature or light may cause this to happen.
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