Growth in gardening: The Christmas Cactus

Christmas cacti, despite their name, are actually tropical plants that bloom brilliant pink buds close to the holiday of their namesake. PHOTO COURTESY OF JOE URBACH

Christmas Cacti are easy to grow. When they bloom, they produce colorful tubular flowers in pink or lilac colors. They bloom a long time indoors and they are low-maintenance houseplants, which makes them popular. I’ll bet someone in your family has a Christmas Cactus!

Despite their name, Christmas cacti are not desert cacti. Their natural habitat is one of an epiphyte living in tree branches in the rainforest of Brazil! In others, they prefer a humid climate, not a dry one. It’s important to water these cacti.

Also, note that there are several types of Holiday Cacti: Easter, Thanksgiving and Christmas. They bloom closest to the holiday of their name. To confuse matters further, most of the Christmas cactus sold are actually Thanksgiving cactus. If you find your Christmas cactus blooming near Thanksgiving, guess what?

These colorful cacti have blooming periods corresponding to the holidays, hence their common names. But I have always loved these because they are simply stunning plants! The hanging branches, composed of glossy green segments, can reach up to 36 inches long; while the flowers appear from stem tips and measure up to 3 inches long with several tiers of petals. Each bloom lasts for several days, and the entire blooming period spans several weeks. 

This popular, winter-flowering houseplant makes a great addition to nearly any indoor setting. Christmas cactus is not only easy to care for but propagates easily too, making it an exceptional candidate for holiday gift giving. 

Let’s look at how to how to plant Christmas cactus and care for it. The Christmas cactus is easily propagated by cutting a short Y-shaped segment from the stem tips. Make certain, however, that the cutting is taken from healthy plant foliage only. Plant the segment approximately a quarter of its length deep in slightly sandy soil. Moisten evenly and place the cutting in a well-lit area, staying away from any direct sunlight. To root cuttings for new plants, cut back shoots from the tips, cut at the second joint of each tip. The cutting should show signs of growth within a few weeks, at which time the plant can be transferred to another container, if desired, with a looser soil mix of compost and standard potting soil. 

Advice for Christmas cactus care tells us that it performs well under average home conditions with moderate care. The Christmas cactus will adapt to low light conditions, but the plant will produce blooms more readily if exposed to brighter light. That being said, too much direct sunlight can burn its leaves, so keep the Christmas cactus in an appropriate area to avoid this.

Christmas cactus moisture is important as well. The plant requires frequent and thorough watering, during its active growth in spring and summer, keeping the soil slightly moist. Allow the moisture levels to drop and dry out some between watering intervals, but never completely, and never let the plant sit in water, as this will lead to root and stem rot. Applying a mild houseplant fertilizer solution every other week or two is also acceptable. When considering how to care for Christmas cacti, keep in mind that they prefer temperatures hovering between 60 and 70 degrees F. with average to high humidity levels. Placing a tray of pebbles filled with water beneath the Christmas cactus container is a good way to add a bit more humidity to the home. Once the Christmas cactus has ceased all flowering – usually by fall – or about six to eight weeks before you want the plant to rebloom, you should allow the plant to begin its dormancy cycle by cutting back on moisture and reducing both light and temperature. Simply cut back the watering and make sure the plant receives 12-14 hours of darkness and average temperatures around 50-55 Fahrenheit. Also, keep the Christmas cactus away from drafty areas. 

When you know how to care for Christmas cactus, this plant is not difficult to manage, and when given proper care and placed in a suitable location, the Christmas cactus may even surprise you with additional blooming cycles throughout the year.

The Christmas cactus that sits near the southwest window in my office must be more than 2 feet in diameter. I’ve had it for years. It’s been repotted two or three times. It was in riotous full bloom just before Thanksgiving. Sitting here looking it at it now, I realize that it has a story to tell, not a Christmas story, but still a story worth the telling.

Many years ago, my friend named Darryl, had fallen on difficult times. He was living “at home,” on the family farm with his father. The two were living on what had become a rundown farmstead. Darryl’s mother had died years before, and his father was quite elderly. 

I was visiting one Sunday, a pleasant fall day, I think, they didn’t have much, but they had shared what they had. The two of them got along as family does when fathers and sons live together without wives and daughters to temper their ways. In the living room of their farm house sat a huge Christmas cactus. I wish that I had taken a picture of it. The plant must have been five or six feet in diameter. Needless to say, the cactus was vibrant and healthy and in full bloom, it took my breath away. It could have held its own against the colorful blooms of plants rooted in tropical climates where garish flowers are the norm.

I learned that the larger-than-life cactus had belonged to Darryl’s mother. She had loved that plant above all her others. In her memory, my friend’s Dad had kept the plant growing in the many years after his wife had passed on, even though he was dealing with health issues of his own. I could not see a feminine hand anywhere in that farmstead. There were no flower beds, no geraniums in pots on the porch, no curtains or frills anywhere. The woman who made that house a home had nearly vanished. That is, until I saw that Christmas cactus. Even I, who had never known her, knew without a doubt, that she was there.

Of course, they gave me a cutting from that gorgeous plant and since it is very easy to propagate, I was able to get it going and it is growing strong even now. Both Darryl and his dad have long since joined his mom, but she is still alive in my piece of that Christmas Cactus that now makes its home in my office. I never knew her, but I still think of her and her husband and her son, almost every time I see that plant.

I was thinking my Christmas cactus story wasn’t really a Christmas story. But maybe it is. It’s certainly a story about families and the joy and memories that we can all find both this time of year and in a humble plant.

May you all have a Happy Christmas.

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Joe Urbach is the publisher of GardeningAustin.com and the Phytonutrient Blog. He has lived in the Central Texas area for over 30 years. Urbach is a certified Texas Master Gardener from Hays County and is currently serving as the director of training. For more information on the Master Gardener program contact the Hays County AgiLife Extension Service at 512-393-2120.

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