The Christmas cactus is the popular term for members of the genus schlumbergera. This plant is easily identified by its stems of flat, oval, pointed disks; its dark green foliage; and its brightly-colored flowers, most commonly in pink, yellow, orange, and red. These plants are forest cacti and are native to the rain forests located on the mountains of southeastern Brazil, north of Rio de Janiero. Because it blooms around November and December, the Christmas cactus has become popular as a holiday gift. This plant is also frequently referred to as a holiday cactus and zygocactus, once its proper biological name.
A Christmas cactus plant is a thoughtful and affordable gift that will, with minimal care, delight the recipient for years to come. Consider giving a schlumbergera this holiday season.
The Christmas cactus plants we see today in plant stores and grocery stores around the holidays are actually a hybrid of two different species of schlumbergera (s. truncata and s.russelliana), first bred in England about 150 years ago. It became popular in 19th century, Victorian England to give these plants as holiday gifts.
Caring for a Christmas Cactus
Your holiday cactus requires relatively little care. For optimum results, keep in mind a few points:
- Avoid Temperature Extremes. Keep your plant away from draughts and temperature extremes, such as direct sun from a window.
- Avoid Moving Your Plant. Christmas cacti are fragile, especially between the joints of the plant, and can easily be broken by moving the plant around.
- Water Regularly. These plants are less drought-tolerant than most cacti. Water thoroughly when the top one inch of soil if dry to the touch. Don't allow the plant to become too dry.
- Prune. Prune your plant gently after it blooms to encourage it to branch out.
- Give it Adequate Sunlight. Christmas cacti do best with lots of indirect sunlight. Avoid the direct sun of a western window. These plants can be taken outside during the summer months, but place them in the shade or partial shade to avoid sunburn.
- Repot Occasionally. Christmas cacti need to be repotted every two to three years to avoid becoming root-bound.
A properly cared-for plant can live for 20 years or more.
Christmas cacti can be easily propagated by planting a stem cutting in about two inches of sandy soil. Place the new plant in indirect sunlight and water regularly. It should show new growth in four to six weeks.
Getting Your Cactus to Bloom
Being a forest (as opposed to a desert) cactus, the schlumbergera requires four to six weeks of cool (50 - 55 degrees Fahrenheit) temperatures in order to bloom. Alternately, you can keep your cactus in the dark (a closet or basement) for 12 hours each day for six weeks prior to Christmas for a Christmas-blooming plant.