Our friends have pointed out that we seem fixated on poinsettia and holly this time of year. Looking back over our ever-growing gardening blog we’d have to agree. These same friends point out that a visit to our home shows that we give equal space, if not more, to another colorful indoor plant: the Christmas cactus.
We kept a wonderful Christmas cactus, started from a cutting by our grandmother, for years until, until…well, we’ll save that story for later. The Christmas cactus left behind!
But let’s get down to the matter at hand. Is it a flowering cactus, as its name implies? Or a succulent?
If you think that this question doesn’t matter, well, you’re partially right. Call it anything and it’s still a thing of beauty with its green, glossy, droopy leaves and elongated, even sexy looking blossoms of red and pink, even orange and white depending on the strain. Different types — the Thanksgiving cactus, the Easter cactus — have different segmented leaves, some with points, some without.
To tell you the truth, we don’t know if these plants are succulents or cacti. We’ve seen articles that claim each and welcome any informed information you botanists, amateur and otherwise, might have.
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But what it is does matter when it comes to the care of your Christmas cactus, especially if you want it blooming during the holidays. And in that regard, it’s best treated as a succulent. Addressing the plant’s particular needs for light and water as if it’s a succulent — which we’re pretty sure it is — is the best way to fill it with blossoms.
Let’s start with soil because that’s the thing that controls the moisture available to the plant. A good potting mix that drains well is ideal. If you want to make your own, use a mixture of garden compost, leaf mold and non-salty sand in a roughly 4-2-1 balance. Perlite, vermiculite and other drainage enhancers can substitute for the sand. A little well composted cow manure is a good addition but make sure it’s very well composted. If it smells, it shouldn’t be inside.
Whatever pot you use, make sure that it has holes for draining. It should be deep enough for a layer of stones or pea-sized gravel at the bottom to facilitate draining. Cactus and succulents don’t like wet feet.
Unlike actual cactus, the Christmas cactus isn’t completely drought tolerant. It needs watering but, like a succulent, it can store water in its leaves. So allow the soil in the plant’s container to dry at least half-way down into the soil before watering again. The plant needs more water during the summer months, when you should just let the surface dry out, and less, even none during the winter after flowering.
Sunlight levels are important: not too much and not too little. The plants can tolerate partial shade and an east or even north facing window will maintain your plant during the summer. But if you want more blooms, make sure it gets less light — no more than 10 or 11 hours a day — during the months of October and November. If they’re indoors where they’ll see more light, you might start covering them in the fall.
True cactus, of course, need less water, especially if grown outdoors in soil. A potted cactus indoors will need more water but its potting medium should be allowed to dry out completely before it’s watered again. Cactus will also generally tolerate more light and heat. A potted cactus that you bring indoors during the winter needs time to adjust to direct sunlight when you return it to the outdoors. Your Christmas cactus will always need sun protection a good part of the day, indoors or out.
I’ve moved Christmas cactus outside during the summer but experience — a cruel teacher — has shown that they need to be mostly shaded, especially where the sun is intense. When nighttime temperature drop to 50 degrees, it’s time to bring them inside.
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To achieve maximum blooming, start withholding water in October. Cooler temperatures, say 60 degrees or so, also helps. Too much heat can cause problems so keep your plant away from heat ducts and other sources of warmth.
After blooming, keep plants cool, give them only a little water for a couple months, and don’t supplement the soil with amendments (fertilizing every other watering is a good idea during the summer). A good time to replant is when the cactus or whatever it is starts to show new growth.
That’s also a good time to start cuttings, though that can be done successfully almost any time except, in our humble experience, after blooming. Break off three or four segments of the stem and allow the moisture at the broken tip to dry before putting into potting soil with extra perlite or vermiculite. Keep the growing medium moist. When you see new growth coming from the end of your cutting, you know you’ve been successful.
Here’s more on starting Christmas cactus.
Newly rooted cuttings make great gifts, gifts that kids can get involved in growing. My grandmother — may she forever rest in peace — gave us a cutting decades ago and the plant thrived, growing large and full of holiday blossoms. It followed us around the country until it just got to big to move. So we took a cutting with us wrapped for a cross country trip in a towel to keep moist. This year, in its new home, it gave us its very first blooms. Thanks, grandma!
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