Thanks to its colorful flowers that bloom in winter, the Christmas cactus (Schlumbergera buckleyi) has become a cheery addition to many families' homes during this festive time of year. Though we tend to associate cacti with arid, desert-like conditions, the Christmas cactus originated in the tropical rainforests of Southeastern Brazil, and "prefer more humid environments than other cacti," says Christopher Satch, Plant Scientist at New York based houseplant oasis The Sill. With the correct conditions and care, you can keep this merry houseplant alive and blooming for years to come. Here's what you need to know.
What Is a Christmas Cactus?
Things can get confusing since there are three types of holiday cacti: Christmas, Thanksgiving, and Easter. Each cacti blooms around the holiday it's named after. Christmas cacti have hanging branches composed of flat green leaves and rounded teeth. They produce red, pink, white, or purple flowers that bloom at the ends of these branches (which may reach up to three feet!). Each flower-which is typically about three inches long-lasts for several days, though the entire flowering period typically spans about two weeks.
What's the Right Way to Care for Your Christmas Cacti?
To ensure your Christmas cactus gets enough moisture, Satch recommends checking the soil. When the top layer of soil feels dry, or when its leaves start to wrinkle, is when you should give your plant a good drink. Make sure that your cactus is properly potted with lightweight soil that allows for drainage into a planter with holes at the base. One word of warning: Never let your cactus sit in water, which can lead to root rot. Another important tip: Fertilize every two weeks during active growth. If your home is particularly dry, place a shallow bowl of water nearby to help humidify the air. Christmas cactus love bright, indirect sunlight. Just make sure to avoid direct sunlight which can burn the leaves.
How Can You Get Them to Bloom?
In order for those stunning flowers to appear, your cactus needs the right conditions. This includes short days and long (dark) nights. Six to eight weeks before Christmas, place your cactus in a completely dark area (like the garage or basement, where house lights won't be on) for 12 hours each night, then carry it to a sunny spot to expose it to 10 hours of daylight. If for some reason buds don't form, Satch recommends bringing your plant closer to a window, as this is your plant's way of telling you that the daytime light isn't bright enough.
How Do You Propagate a Christmas Cactus?
The only thing better than one Christmas cactus is two (or more), and the good news is that these plants are super easy to propagate. Just trim three to four segments and plant them in a small pot, ideally with some soil taken from the parent plant. Care for the segment the same as you would a mature plant and they'll root fairly quickly (in about four to six weeks). The best time to propagate is in the spring.
Secrets of Growing Christmas Cactus