You might think a cactus makes for an unusual Christmas plant, but when the Christmas cactus (Schlumbergera bridgessii) is covered in blooms, it is a most welcome sight in the middle of winter.
Given some minimal care, your Christmas cactus will bloom on its own. However, it might not bloom for the holidays. If you want your plant to be on full display during the holiday season, you will have to force it into dormancy about 8 weeks before you want flowers. It sounds complicated, but it really does not require much effort. The hardest part is remembering to do it.
Getting Your Christmas Cactus to Bloom
To have your Christmas cactus bloom at Christmas time, you will probably need to force it, by first sending it into dormancy and then coaxing it out. Follow these steps, starting in mid-fall.
- In mid-October, reduce watering. Only water when the soil feels dry about an inch below the surface. Do not fertilize while forcing.
- Keep your Christmas cactus cool. Ideally, you want it at 50 - 55 degrees F. (12 C.)
- Begin to limit the amount of light the plant receives. The plant can remain in indirect light during the day, but it will need at least 12 - 14 hours of total darkness at night, for the flower buds to develop. (If the room is warmer than the ideal 50 - 55 degrees F., give your plant an extra couple of hours of darkness each day.) The easiest way to do this is to place the Christmas cactus in a room or closet with a door that does not get opened at night. If light gets under the door, you will need to take the additional step of covering the plant with a dark cloth or bag. Continue this treatment for about 6 - 8 weeks. At that point, you should see flower buds developing on the stems.
- Once you see flower buds, move your Christmas cactus out of the darkness and near a bright window. Make sure it is not near any drafts, or the cold will cause it to drop its buds.
- The flowers should start opening within a couple of weeks. Each flower will remain open for at least 6 days, probably more, and the plant should continue to bloom for 4 - 6 weeks.
Caring for Christmas Cactus Plants
Unlike the desert-loving cacti many of us are used to, Christmas cactus is a native of tropical rainforests and needs regular water, to remain healthy.
The flattened leaves are actually stem segments that hang and drape from containers and baskets. The flowers will form at the ends of these stems, so the more stems your plant has, the more flowers. The traditional flower color was red, but now you can find Christmas cacti in a myriad of flower colors including red, pink, lavender, and peach.
To encourage more stems, grow your Christmas cactus as a hanging plant or place it somewhere where it has room to drape. Don’t worry about rubbing up against it. Christmas cactus plants do not have thorns.
Here’s what your Christmas cactus needs to grow well.
Light: They prefer a diffused light, although Christmas cacti sitting in a bright chilly window have been known to bloom profusely. They are very adaptable at adjusting to growing conditions.
Water: Water the plant thoroughly, allowing the excess water to run out through the drainage hole. Allow the soil to dry almost completely between waterings. Never let the soil sit wet. You will know if the soil is too dry when the leaves start to pucker and shrivel.
Humidity: The Christmas cactus also needs humidity, especially when grown in the dry conditions of heated homes. Either mist it or place a tray of pebbles sitting in water underneath the plant. Do not let the water touch the bottom of the pot.
Fertilizer: Feed monthly with a diluted water-soluble fertilizer during spring and summer. Withhold fertilizer when the buds set and resume after flowering.
Temperature: The Christmas cactus isn't fussy about temperature. Ideally, they like it warm 70 - 80 degrees F. during the growing season and cooler 55 - 65 degrees F. while setting buds.
More Tips for Keeping Your Christmas Cactus Healthy
- Keep away from frequently opened doors and drafty windows. They don't like sudden drafts and will drop their buds or flowers if exposed to them.
- Pruning lightly after flowering re-energizes the plant.
- Christmas cacti tend to bloom better if they are kept slightly pot bound.
- Don’t be surprised if your Christmas cactus blooms sporadically throughout the year. A happy Christmas cactus will do that.
- The plants are extremely long-lived and propagate easily from cuttings.
- Older plants are even more prolific bloomers than new Christmas Cacti.
- Christmas cacti seem to thrive on neglect. Don’t be tempted to fuss over them.