Christmas Cactus, Schlumbergera – by Heidi Linnemann, Cameron County Master Gardener
Native to the mountain rain forests of Brazil, the Christmas Cactus is part of the Zygo-Cactus family and is classified as an epiphyte as they are found in the forks of tree limbs where they grow in decayed leaves and other natural debris. Although part of the cactus family, they are truly different in all aspects from the desert cactus we know so well. They don’t like direct sun, sandy soil or arid conditions.
Probably the best known of the epiphytic cactus, this plant is easily grown and has a long life. Hybridizing has resulted in varieties that come in a myriad of colors, and with attention to light, water and temperature, you can create blooms throughout the year. The soil for this plant should be a combination of rich humus or compost and sand or perlite. As a succulent, the plant can store water, but unlike other cacti, it does not want to be dry. This plant loves humidity, so you might want to place the pot on a saucer containing an inch or so of gravel which you then keep moist. Water thoroughly when the top half of the soil is dry.
Once the holiday (blooming) season is over, the plant needs to have a month of rest. It should be placed in a cool, dark place and limited water should be given. Do not panic if during this time it looses some leaves or appears to be weak. Do not prune, shape or pinch the Christmas cactus during this time. Once new growth starts, fertilize with a weak solution of liquid plant fertilizer every 2 or 3 weeks. (We recommend a 0-10-10). Cool temperatures (55 -65 degrees) and long nights are required for 6 weeks. If the temperature is above 65 degrees, the plant needs 12 -13 hours of total darkness to start bud production. (Try placing the plant in a dark closet, or covering with a dark cloth.) When the plant starts developing flower buds, stop fertilizing and only water enough to keep the leaves from becoming shriveled. But this IS the time to move the plant to a spot with normal indirect light. Try to keep the plant evenly moist, and do not resume your fertilization until the flowers have started to bloom.
Bud or flower drop can usually be attributed to over-watering, lack of humidity or insufficient light. Bud drop will also occur if the plant is exposed to drafts. It’s smart to not repot too often, as this plant likes to be pot bound. You can increase your collection by root cuttings. The cuttings should be at least two stem segments (paddles) long. Allow the cuttings to dry for several days to allow the cut end to form a callus which helps prevent root rot. Enjoy!