How to Grow Christmas Cactus for Christmas
One sure sign that the holidays are fast approaching is the appearance of Christmas cactus for sale in stores and nurseries.
Why are they called Christmas cactus?
They may not look like cacti, but Christmas cactus are, in fact, members of the cactus family. They come in two varieties. Schlumbergera X buckleyi is the familiar Christmas cactus that blooms in December. Schlumbergera truncata, which has larger leaves that resemble crab claws, blooms in November and is known as the Thanksgiving cactus. I have a Thanksgiving cactus that blooms from November through January. One year it bloomed from Thanksgiving to Valentine’s Day!
How do I grow them?
They may be members of the cactus family, but their natural environment resembles that of orchids. They grow in the leaf litter that accumulates in the crooks of trees. Obviously we don’t have trees growing in our homes so we grow them in potting soil that contains a lot of peat moss which acts like leaf litter and encourages good drainage. Like cacti, they prefer more dry conditions so they should be watered sparingly. Unlike their desert cousins, they prefer a higher humidity. You can create humidity by placing a glass of water next to your Christmas cactus or by placing the pot in a humidity tray which is a tray with gravel and water. The bottom of the pot should never touch the water, just the gravel.
For most of the year, both the Christmas cactus and the Thanksgiving cactus likes warm temperatures, 70°F - 80°F. You can even bring them outside during the summer. Don’t place them in direct sunlight, however. They prefer diffuse light indoors and shade outdoors. During the growing season (April through September), you can use a 10-10-10 fertilizer once a month.
How do I make more plants?
Propagating both types of cactus is simple. Cut off a Y-shaped piece making sure that it includes at least 3 segments. Dip it in rooting hormone and place it in a soilless potting mix about ¼ of the way up first segment. Once your cutting develops roots, you can transplant it into regular potting soil. It’s easy to tell if there are new roots. Simply look for the red buds at the tips of the Y indicating new growth.
How do I get my Thanksgiving cactus to bloom on Thanksgiving and my Christmas cactus to bloom on Christmas?
Preparing either one to bloom during the holiday season takes a little planning. They are photoperiodic meaning that they need certain numbers of hours of complete darkness to bloom. In September or October, move your Christmas or Thanksgiving cactus to a cool spot (50°F to 55°F) that is sunny during the day but gets total darkness at night with no artificial light, from either the exterior of your home such street lights or from the interior of your home. In late October or early November, switch to a 0-10-10 fertilizer to encourage bloom. The zero in the formula represents nitrogen which encourages the growth of foliage which you don’t want. You want the plant to put its energy into making flowers, not leaves. Limit watering. Once the plant has developed buds, be careful not to bump it or move it. This could cause the buds to drop off. Other causes of bud drop are lack of humidity, over-watering and not enough light. Cold drafts will also cause your plants to drop their buds so don’t place them near any exterior doors where they can get chilled each time someone enters or leaves your home.
After blooming, both the Christmas cactus and Thanksgiving cactus needs to rest. Continue lightly watering and suspend fertilizing it. Fertilizer encourages growth. Resist the temptation to repot either one until February. Both types of plant like tight quarters. If you repot into too large of a container, it won’t bloom again until it has filled the pot which could take a couple of years. Don’t prune until new growth appears in March or April. You can resume fertilizing with your 10-10-10 fertilizer in April.
These few simple steps will ensure that your Christmas and Thanksgiving cactus will bloom every Christmas or Thanksgiving for years to come.