The Christmas Cactus was discovered growing in Brazil by European explorers in the early part of the 19th century. While a member of the cactus family this plant is unique as unlike its brethren that grow in desert climates this cactus, in the wild, grows in a tropical rain forest. It actually grows above the ground in the trees where rainfall quickly evaporates and water does not accumulate which simulates the growing conditions favored by other members of the cacti family. The plant really has no association with Christmas or the Christmas story. It was given its name because when it was transported back to Europe it was discovered that its most common blooming period in the Northern Hemisphere was the time period between Thanksgiving and New Year’s.
The first time I recall seeing a Christmas Cactus was a December evening, more than 20 years ago, when I was picking up my girlfriend, now my spouse, from her job. She worked in an office at the college she was attending and I noticed this very attractive plant with beautiful white flowers that you couldn’t help but notice among the other holiday decorations. Eventually, my Mother-In-Law took a cutting of this stunning plant and it still blooms every Christmas season at my home. My parents who live in North Carolina also have beautiful red Christmas Cactus plants and this is why I consider this to be a “family plant”.
The ease with which this plant can be propagated and grown as well as the significance of it blooming during the holiday season make it, in my mind, an ideal plant for families to pass down from generation to generation. It comes in all sorts of beautiful colors and its growing conditions are pretty easy to duplicate indoors. When it isn’t in bloom its needs are pretty simple. You need to have a spot that gets bright light but not direct sunlight which can burn the leaves. You want to not allow the plant to dry out but do not overwater it as too much water will cause the plant to lose its leaves. I find the best way to water mine is to put the water in the saucer which is underneath the pot and allow the roots to soak up the water rather than watering the soil directly. You can even put the plant outdoors for the summer if you have a shady spot for it.
There are some important steps you will want to follow to make sure your cactus blooms during the holiday season:
• Starting at the end of October you should not fertilize the plant at all.
• You will want to reduce your watering and allow the plant to dry out a little between watering.
• Similar to a Poinsettia the Christmas Cactus does require dark periods to stimulate the formation of flower buds. Starting in Mid-October you can put the plant in a closet or unused bathroom each night for about 6 to 8 weeks or until you start to see flower buds forming on the tips of the leaves.
Once the buds form you want to keep the plant away from drafts and mist the plant a few times a week to maintain a level of humidity in the air around the plant. The flower buds will sometimes drop off if the plant is exposed to sudden changes in its environment.
After the Christmas Cactus finishes blooming you can prune it and even repot it if that is necessary. This usually needs to be done every 3 years or so but I will admit that I haven’t repotted mine for many years and it has not negatively impacted the plant at all. Holiday traditions are important so why not start one with your family by sharing a plant, such as the Christmas Cactus.