One of the more popular flowering plants around the holidays is the Schlumbergera bridgesii better known as the Christmas cactus. It offers a profusion of tubular flowers that bloom for two to four weeks around Christmas time.
Originating from Brazil, this jungle cactus is an epiphyte that lives on trees and is different from the desert cactus in that it is the trailing type and does not require direct sunlight. At times there can be confusion as to which type of Schlumbergera you have.
Christmas cacti have flattened leaves with scallop-edged margins that are smooth and spineless with tubular 3 inch flowers, as opposed to the Thanksgiving cactus (Zygocactus truncates)(S. truncatus) crab cactus, which has sharply toothed edges with two large teeth at the end of the last joint on each branch and shorter tubular flowers with spreading pointed petals.
The Easter cactus (Rhipsalidopsis gaertneri) grows more upright, has fibrous hairs at the joints and produces different flowers. It is the more difficult one to grow. All bloom close to their respective holidays under normal growing conditions.
Christmas cactus care
Not only are these cacti so popular because of their spectacular blooming habit but also because they are relatively easy to care for. They require a rich, well drained soil, bright indirect light and a daytime temperature of 70 degrees and night temperature of 60-65. Feed it with a balanced houseplant fertilizer between April and October.
Christmas cactus is not drought tolerant. Water the plants thoroughly and let them dry out between watering. Do not ignore it or kill it with kindness. The leaves will wrinkle if the soil is too dry or when over watered which can lead to root rot. Water less in the winter.
When the flower buds begin to show, place the plant in bright light and temperatures (60-70F). The plant will no longer require long nights and cooler temperatures. Once the flower buds are formed, try not to move the plant to a different location as it may cause the buds to drop.
When in bloom keep the plant moderately moist (not too wet). If the leaves get limp and flabby you may be overwatering the plant. Too much light can fade the flowers. Do not expose them to direct heat, cold drafts. Fertilize lightly with a high potassium fertilizer when the buds form and continue until the flowers fade. When the plant is finished blooming withhold water for 6 weeks allowing it to rest. After bloom or in spring/summer, prune the plant by pinching off sections at the joints to promote branching. Pruned sections can be easily rooted. In early spring, when new growth starts to show, resume feeding and watering. Move the plant outdoors in a shady spot for the summer.
With a little effort and understanding, one can repeat the flowering process year after year. There are two important factors to initiate bud formation
1. Long nights – Christmas cactus requires at least 12 hours of darkness for 5-6 weeks.
2. Prolonged cool temperatures of 55-59F degrees for 6 weeks. If kept at 55-59F at night Christmas cacti will bloom regardless of daylength. Bud formation will not happen if night temperatures are above75F degrees.
Keep the plant slightly dry until you see buds form, then resume normal watering and light feeding.
Give your Christmas cactus a little love and care and it will flourish for years. Some do so well that they have been known to be passed down in families for generations.
The stem cuttings can be rooted in potting soil mix and started as new plants.