Christmas cactus, Schlumbergera bridgesii, is one of the most popular plants around the holidays. It has a wide variety of bloom colors: white, fuchsia, yellow, salmon, pink and combinations of those colors. While they make wonderful gifts, making them permanent residents, rather than something that finds its way to the compost bin when blooming stops, takes a little care.
Christmas cactus is a hybrid epiphytic cactus originally from southeast Brazil growing in tropical rainforests. Being epiphytic means that it lived in the treetops and branch hollows in mosses and decayed leaves above the ground. They are also known to live on rocks in shady, humid locations in their native environment. However, they have been a part of the houseplant community for more than 150 years.
The name “cactus” gives nongardeners the false impression that these plants will thrive in dry, hot conditions with poor soil, but this could not be further from the truth. In fact, repotting your Christmas cactus in organic, humus-rich soil is important. Christmas cactus are succulents and can store a significant amount of water in their leaves. They should be watered thoroughly when the top half of the soil is dry. The time period between watering will vary depending on humidity, temperature, amount of growth and amount of light. If your home has a low humidity level, you can place some rocks in a dish with some water and place your pot on top.
Ideally, you should place a Christmas cactus near a north or east window for just the right amount sunlight. If you want to grow this plant near a south or western facing window, you should shade the plant slightly with a thin curtain. These plants can be placed outside in the summer months, but care should be taken to keep them in a partial-shade to shady location as their leaves can burn if in direct sunlight.
A Christmas cactus that is pot-bound, which means the roots system and container size are approximately the same, will have reduced blooms. Repotting every 3-4 years is sufficient to avoid this. Repotting too often may leave the plant traumatized and less likely to set blooms. Add a layer of soil to the surface as needed each year. When repotting or adding soil, use a commercially packaged mix labelled for succulents. These plants can be repotted any time of year, but you should avoid repotting while they are actively blooming.
Blooms begin to set in mid- to late October. During this time you should limit watering. Water only if you notice wilting. You can resume regular watering in November, but be careful not to overwater. Overwatering will cause the stems to be weak and break off. Only water when the surface is dry.
Some Christmas cactus will bloom well into February. When blooming has stopped, these plants should be allowed to rest by withholding water for about six weeks. After that, resume watering and keep the soil moist, again, allowing the surface to dry out between watering.
Finally these are a perfect plant for propagating and sharing. They are very easy to start. The best time to propagate is about a month or two after it blooms. Simply clip or twist off a y-shaped cutting with several segments. This is done at one of the joints on a healthy stem. Allow the segment to dry for a few hours to two days to avoid rotting when placed in the soil. After they have been allowed to dry, place them in the soil just deep enough to allow it to stand upright. You may need to pack a little soil around the base to help it out. It is common to see some wilting at first as they adapt to their new environment. Place them in a location with plenty of light, but not direct sunlight.
For more information on caring for houseplants, contact your local extension office. Atlantic County residents can contact 609-625-0056. Cape May County Residents can call 609-465-5115, ext.3607.
Atlantic County Master Gardeners will be available to answer gardening questions and take samples for plant identification or diagnoses throughout the county the fall. We will also be available at the following Atlantic County Library System branches evenings from 5:30-8 p.m.: Brigantine, Nov. 13; Mays Landing, Nov. 14; Ventnor, Nov. 14; Pleasantville, Nov. 18; Somers Point, Nov. 19; and Egg Harbor Township, Nov. 20.
Interested in becoming a Rutgers Certified Master Gardener? Classes in Atlantic County are forming now. Please call 609-625-0056 for more information. Cape May County residents welcome.
Do you have a gardening-related question you would like answered here? Please forward your questions to Belinda Chester, Master Gardener Program Coordinator, Rutgers Cooperative Extension Office, 6260 Old Harding Highway, Mays Landing, NJ 08330. You can also submit questions at Rutgers-atlantic.org/garden or email them to firstname.lastname@example.org; please include “garden question” in the subject line.