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Christmas Cactus - Care and Advice of this houseplant. 

Botanical Name - Schlumbergera - Cactaceae - sometimes called Zygocactus.

The Christmas Cactus is a succulent cactus, though not with the thorns normally associated with that group of plants. It is an Epiphyte. Epiphytic plants normally grow grow on trees - taking most of their nutrient and moisture out of the air, rather than through their root system. It is not a parasite, so does not feed off its host plant. It simply lodges there - normally in the crotches of branches. It will also feed through its normal roots, upon the organic debris that falls its way. Bear in mind its origins and you are on the way to having a splendid houseplant.

Christmas Cactus problems are usually as a result of incorrect watering. The Christmas cactus is a tropical type 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. Water thoroughly when the top half of the soil in the pot feels dry to the touch. Discard the excess water, then do not water again until the top half becomes dry. The length of time between each watering will vary with the air temperature, amount of light, rate of growth and relative humidity.

Avoid draughts, heat from radiators or other sources. Care for your Christmas Cactus - keep it cool.

Christmas cactus can adapt to low light, but more abundant blooms are produced on plants that have been exposed to high light intensity. Keep your plants in a sunny location indoors. Plants can be moved outdoors in summer, but care for them in a shady or semi-shady location. In warmer zones, they can be planted in raised beds for good effect. Too much direct sunlight can burn the leaves. When it's time to bring the plants back inside in the Autumn, slowly adjust the plants to life indoors by gradually increasing the number of hours they spend indoors each day.

Rose pink flower of the Christmas Cactus.
Schlumbergera - The Christmas Cactus.

Potting Requirements
Well-drained soil is essential for the proper care of your Christmas cactus. Use a commercially packaged potting mix for succulent plants or mix your own by combining two parts plain potting soil with one part clean sand or vermiculite. Whilst the plant roots do not not need too big a pot, a larger pot is desirable to prevent the plant being top-heavy and falling over. Hanging pots are best.

Poisonous?
It is not classed as a poisonous plant normally - for humans or domestic pets - cats, dogs etc. However, this is not to say that it should be eaten, and if a youngster decides to chomp away, then best seek medical health, making sure that you make a note of both the common and botanical names.  We have no knowledge of any allergies. However, some people are allergic to many different plants, so if a rash or other symptom is noticed after handling, then take precautions such as wearing latex gloves.(Ref National Capital Poison Center)

Schlumbergera - Christmas CactusPruning and Propagating Christmas cactus...
after blooming will encourage the plant to branch out. Remove a few sections of each stem by pinching them off with your fingers or cutting with a sharp knife. These sections can be rooted easily in almost any compost. Before potting, it is advisable to allow the cut end of the cutting to dry for a couple of hours on a not-too-sunny windowsill. This effectively seals the cut end and prevents entry of any soil borne pests etc. plants dried in this manner seem to root slightly quicker also. there is no need for rooting hormone. You may even find that a few roots have sprouted from the joints before you even take the cutting.

Seeds of Christmas Cactus
Schlumbergera can be successfully raised from seed, with the Schlumbergera truncata types seemingly seeding indoors better than other varieties. The fresher the better for good germination. Otherwise buy from a reputable seed house that will have vacuum sealed the seeds in a foil packet. They need a little bottom heat for best results - a propagator is ideal. It is possible with sowing fresh seeds to have a flower on the end of the single leaf by year end. better though, to pinch out the solitary shoot and allow to bush out for the following year. You should see assorted colours from your seedlings. Do NOT overwater - just keep humid until established. When large enough, pot into no more than a 3in (4.5cm) pot.

Christmas Cactus are not normally grafted. That simply mentioned because of the email requests we get about how to graft Christmas Cactus!

General Care of Christmas Cactus.

Christmas cactus will bloom if given long uninterrupted dark periods. Begin the dark treatments in about mid-October to have plants in full bloom by the Christmas holidays. Christmas cactus will also bloom if they are subjected to cool temperatures of about 50 to 55F at night.

Schlumbergera are quite happy in a wide range of environments - so adaptable. One of the best specimens that I have seen - flowering year after year at Christmas - was on top of a tall cabinet in a hallway - receiving no direct sun - and very little life. Covered in dust, yet seemingly happy with its lot. It had already had a long life, and will probably continue well into old age!

Christmas Cactus Problems
There are very few diseases that the Christmas Cactus ails with, though there are a few bubs - noticeably mealy bugs, scale insect, and rarely, red spider mite. If there are general plant problems, such as yellowing of the leaves - or drooping leaves (It does trail naturally by the way!), then these can normally be traced back to one of the bugs mentioned - mealybug being the main problem. Severe wilting can be caused by root mealy bugs below the surface of the soil.

Flowering problems are usually as a result of overwatering - in particular if the plant pot is in a saucer and holding a reservoir of water. This will cause mature flowers to droop, and in particular to see the buds dropping off. Let it dry out and don't make the same mistake the following year. If you have bud drop on a newly bought plant - or a Christmas present - then flower problems and drop will probably be because of the severe change of environment. From that of the grower, then transport - often across countries - being stood in a draughty shop or even outside in a pavement display. Red or bronzed leaves will invariably mean that it has suffered from a cold spell.

There is little need to regularly feed your Christmas Cactus, but a very weak solution of plant food for a month or so after flowering, will get it moving into new growth.

If it needs re-potting, then only into the next size pot. Do NOT over-pot it. I have had one in the same pot for around ten years. It is enormous - and happy!

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By David Hughes - info@gardenseeker.com 


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