Christmas Cactus:EverythingYou Need To Know
Finding flowering houseplants that can bring some colour into your home over the winter months can be difficult. However, there are some fabulous choices out there and, if you’re looking for something that can also add some festive cheer, why not try the Christmas Cactus. It will sit in perfect harmony another Christmas favourite, the poinsettia!
If you’re looking for the perfect gift that will create a burst of colour in the dark winter months, then the Christmas Cactus is the plant for you. Read on to find out more about this flowering houseplant and our top care tips to help keep it thriving throughout the festive period.
THE CHRISTMAS CACTUS
Unlike its desert dwelling cousins, the Christmas Cactus comes from the Schlumbergera family of cacti; the name given to a small group of cacti coming from South-East Brazil. It is also known as an epiphyte, or air plant, which means it grows off the ground on another plant or tree – in this case, growing in the crevices of trees and in-between rocks in the Brazilian rainforest.
There are a couple of legends of how the plant got its name. One tells the story of a missionary who was trying to convert the Bolivian natives and although they appreciated his help they did not believe in his religion. However they wanted to thank him for his efforts and, while the missionary was praying on Christmas Eve, they started to sing one of the hymns he had taught them. The missionary looked up to find the children of the village heading his way bearing the flowering Christmas Cactus so that he could decorate the alter.
Another tells of a young boy from the jungle continuously praying to God for a sign of Christmas. Nothing appeared until Christmas Day approached and he stepped out of his home to find the jungle filled with the flowering cactus.
Unfortunately, as lovely as these stories are, they cannot be true. The Christmas Cactus is only encouraged to bloom when the amount of daylight reduces. Rather less romantically the Christmas Cactus have simply been given their name because they flower when the festive period hits.
CHRISTMAS CACTUS CARE
A big advantage of a Christmas Cactus is that they are an easy house plant to care for. As jungle dwelling plants they need light but not direct sunlight otherwise the stems (leaves) could end up getting scorched. They also prefer it if you manage a constant temperature, ideally between 18-24°C, so it’s probably best to keep them away from a window or radiator where the temperatures can fluctuate too widely.
As a tropical plant the Christmas Cactus loves the humidity but doesn’t want soil that is too wet. During the Christmas season, when the flowers are in bloom, it will probably only need watering every two weeks. You will need to reduce the amount of water it needs when outside of the growing season. You can easily tell if it’s ready by checking the top layer of soil – about an inch deep - if it’s dry then give it a drink. If you’re ever in doubt just remember that these are hardy plants and would prefer to be too dry rather than too wet.
Most of all, the Christmas Cactus will need you to recreate some humidity. You can do this by giving the plant a good spray with a bottle that has a fine misting nozzle. Or you can fill a container with some pebbles and add some water, placing the plant on top of the pebbles – just make sure it doesn’t sit in any liquid.
The Christmas Cactus will produce a green foliage all year round but will only flower during late autumn and winter. To keep your plant healthy all year round and, most importantly to get it to flower again the following Christmas, there are a few things you will need to do. After it has finished flowering (around January time) the plant will need a rest period. For two months you’ll need to move it to a cooler room (about 12 to 15°C) and only water occasionally.
From April the plant will start to grow again and that’s when you’ll need to kickstart the watering schedule and move it back to a warmer room. It will also like a good feed with a liquid houseplant fertiliser. In September, the Christmas Cactus will need another rest period until new buds start to appear when you can move it back into a warm room.
REPOTTING AND PROPAGATING A CHRISTMAS CACTUS
To keep your plant looking in tip top condition it’s best to repot it every year, ideally at the end of March just before the growing season begins. When repotting there are two things you need to be aware of. First, search out a cactus compost which is free draining to prevent root rot. Second, don’t choose a new pot that is too big and make sure there are draining holes at the bottom of the container. This plant likes to be kept snug and may struggle if it suddenly has too much space.
If you’ve fallen in love with the Christmas Cactus why not try propagating it? It’s incredibly easy do and will make the perfect gift for your friends and family. In May, you will need to either trim off a group of three leaf sections (cut at the joints and not half way through a leaf) and then leave the cutting to dry out for a day or two.
When ready, get yourself a pot and fill it with a 50:50 mixture of seed or cutting compost and sharp sand. Take the root end of the cuttings and push them into the compost, going about 1 to 2cm deep. This should be just enough to let them securely stand upright – if you go too deep the plant could rot. Place them somewhere warm and only give a little water or occasionally mist.
About eight to twelve weeks later the cuttings should have started to grow roots. You can check by giving them a little tug, if they don’t budge then you’ve been successful. Now you need to carefully lift out each of the cuttings and pop them into their own pots. Keep them somewhere warm and let them continue to grow.
It can take a few years for your plant to reach maturity and start to show flowers, but it will be worth it!
CHRISTMAS CACTUS FLOWERS
As a striking flowering house plant, your Christmas Cactus will look stunning sitting pride of place on its own.
To make this seasonal plant a little bit more festive, set up a row of them along a shelf (or even the whole bookcase if you’re feeling brave) and intersperse pine cones and baubles between the pots.
If your plant is still small yet producing its flowers, consider grouping some of the red and white flowering varieties along a mantlepiece with some small Christmas trees decorations and pine cones to create a festive design fit for the pages of an interiors magazine.
With their trailing stems you could even hang them up in some planters to create some festive colour all around the room, and for a final flourish to your décor, decorate their leaves with some tiny baubles.
Use them on cards for your friends and family or even spread the delicate blooms along the centre of your Christmas table when eating your festive meal.
As the Christmas Cactus is non-toxic to pets, you can feature this flowering house plant throughout your home to add a festive flourish to any room.
CHRISTMAS CACTUS CARE SOS
As mentioned earlier, this plant is pretty easy to look after. However, if you are experiencing some Christmas Cactus problems and it’s showing signs that all is not well, don’t panic! It will usually be down to a few simple issues.
Not flowering is probably one of the most common problems you can get with this plant. This will usually be down to not getting the correct rest periods (reducing the amount of light and the temperature). If the flowers appear but start to drop off then it could be due to either the fluctuating temperature, the plant being moved while in bloom or from overwatering.
If the stems look shrivelled or the leaves turn red, then the plant is probably in a position that is too hot and sunny (remember these plants do live in the rainforest with dappled shade). If the stems look shrivelled it could be caused by too much water which has made the roots rot. Cut back on the watering and only give it a drink when completely dry.
Keep an eye out for Mealybugs which you will see as white, fluffy blobs on the undersides of the stems. You can get rid of them by wiping off with a damp cloth and then keep checking for new arrivals.
This plant shouldn’t need much pruning but if it does start to look a bit busy then try removing some of the older stems. Make sure you take out whole segments so that it looks more attractive. However, if the stems start to look a little straggly you can encourage the plant create a bushier look by removing a couple of the end segments after it has flowered.
Hopefully you’ve learnt all you can in our guide to the Christmas Cactus, so it’s time to add a touch of plant power to your home this festive season.