Well-drained potting soil vital for Christmas cactus

November 28, 2012
Christmas cactus does best when slightly potbound.

Jingle Bells is almost universally thought of as a Christmas song, but it was actually written and sung for Thanksgiving. The “jingle” is actually a verb telling the driver to bounce or jingle the bells as a way of warning oncoming traffic and pedestrians of the nearly silent sleigh.

In the plant aisle, you may find that like jingle bells there are plants sold for Christmas that are really meant for Thanksgiving.  

Potted Christmas cactus are often sold this time of year and some are indeed Thanksgiving cactus. The true Christmas cactus blooms later into December and is a hybrid species (Schlumbergera x buckleyi.)

Besides different bloom times, you can tell the two apart by looking at their stem segments or "leaves." The segments of the Thanksgiving cactus have sides with pointed lobes along the edges and the Christmas cactus segments are smooth sided, without pointy edges.

While we naturally think of cacti as being heat tolerant, the Christmas cactus holds its blossoms longer if kept in cooler temperatures. These plants are epiphytes and in the wild grow in the same environments as orchids. Often found growing in the forks of tree limbs, they get nourishment from decayed leaves and other natural debris that collects there. Because they are tropical cacti, their cultural needs are entirely different from true cacti.

Place your plant in a well-lit spot out of the way of heat vents, ovens or fireplaces.  Cold drafts and wide swings in temperature will trigger the flower buds to drop from the plant before they open.

Because Christmas cactus is a tropical plant, it needs more moisture than its desert relatives do.

When the top inch of soil is dry to the touch, water thoroughly.

While the Christmas cactus is actively growing, use a houseplant fertilizer made for blooming plants.  Even though Christmas cactus can tolerate low light, you will get fuller, more plentiful blooms if you give it a bright location.

You can move the plants outdoors in the summer, but choose a shady or semi-shady location. If they receive too much light, the leaves may turn red and wilt.

Hot direct sunlight will burn the leaves and weaken the plant.

Well-drained potting soil is vital for Christmas cactus. Try using commercial potting mix for succulent plants.  You can make your own potting soil by mixing two parts plain potting soil with one part clean sand or vermiculite.

After blooming, you can pinch back or prune your plant to encourage the growth of side branches.

As a bonus, these cuttings can be rooted to form new plants. Choose two- to three-inch pieces of the cactus and let the cut end dry out overnight. This will form a callus and keep the cuttings from rotting once potted. Plant your stem cuttings in well-drained cactus potting soil mix.  Set them in indirect light and within a few weeks they will root and grow.

In order to bloom, Christmas cactus need 12 hours of darkness per day. Around the middle of October, place your plants in a dark closet for 12 full hours every night for six to eight weeks.  You will see small buds forming.

Christmas cactus does best when slightly potbound.  After a few years, you may have to repot them.  It is best to repot them in February, March or April. With proper care, your Christmas cactus can burst into bloom several times throughout the year.

Whether you grow a Christmas cactus or a Thanksgiving cactus, you will have a bright colorful addition to your home for the holidays and beyond.  Break off some leaf segments to grow into new plants and you will have the gift that keeps on giving.  And that will add jingle to any day.

  • Paul Barbano writes about gardening from his home in Rehoboth Beach. Contact him by writing to P. O. Box 213, Lewes, DE 19958.

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