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What Should I Do with my Christmas Cactus

Contributed by Leslie Fisette, Master Gardener

This lovely and satisfying winter season bloomer is easy or hard, depending on your point of view.  One expert, Ron Smith, a horticulturist with North Dakota State University Extension, when asked about this species stated, “I wish I understood the Christmas cactus better myself!  I find they are somewhat fickle plants.”  His most often used piece of advice is to take cuttings and start over.

First, a little background is in order; this is a tropical jungle epiphyte, not a CACTUS.  Don’t treat it like a cactus!  There are several parts to this genus; Schlumbergera and Haitora, Christmas, Easter, and Thanksgiving depending on alleged blooming times. There are clearly different shapes of leaves and different ways the blooms present as well as different colors and shapes.  But experts vary in this classification so I’m not getting into this.  Really, what you want to know is how to get the thing to bloom! Right?

Here is the secret formula:  First, they like to be a little pot bound in sterile potting soil with 30% sand.  In the summer, put them outdoors in the shade.  Water once a week. If they are putting out new leaves, give them a little fertilizer every couple weeks (10-10-10 with some micronutrients). Withhold water in August. In September, arrange for the plant to have some cool temperatures (<55 degrees) and longer nights (>12 hours).  They should start setting buds in December and be blooming by Christmas. Unless they are Halloween cactus like mine seem to be. (See the photo of the blooming plant.)  Mine set buds the minute I bring them in the house at the end of September.  The most important culture seems to include a dry period followed by lower temperatures and longer darkness, no matter what time of year your plant is supposed to bloom.  Margaret Roach adds that they do like high humidity and don’t like to be jostled because they become brittle and break as they age.

Even though it is not a cactus, it likes a well-draining soil and doesn’t like to sit in water.  Look at the photo of the non-blooming plant. Root rot!  This is one of the major reasons for failure with this plant. Yes, I took cuttings of three to five sections before it got this bad. I let the cuttings dry out for a few hours and then poked them into the fresh, sterile, all-purpose potting soil they will grow in. They are in bright shade (with no artificial light) and in temperatures about 65 degrees. I keep the soil moist and in a higher humidity pebble tray. And they have a few flower buds…as does that sad looking thing in the photo!  Typically cuttings treated this way grow roots in 4-6 weeks.  They can also be rooted in water.  

People report having these plants for many years; they are passed down through generations, blooming or not.  Part of this is because these plants have very few pests.  The worst is probably mealy bug.  The only way to get rid of this pest is by cleaning with isopropyl alcohol using cotton swabs or spray bottle.  The alcohol must come into contact with the bug to kill it.  Unless this is a very precious heirloom plant, I would toss it and start over with a new plant.  If it is precious, take cuttings that you can more easily clean with alcohol and start with the same genetic material.  

Let’s end with this quote from Ron Smith, “ I’ve known people who treat them like an afterthought and they do beautifully, and I’ve known others who follow the rules to a ‘T’ and have the plants fail completely.  So don’t look for justice growing plants!”



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