Christmas Cactus

Christmas Cactus by Byron Chitwood, Master Gardener.

Guess what? Christmas cactus are named because they tend to bloom about Christmas time. However, they are also called Thanksgiving Cactus, Crab Cactus and Holiday Cactus. When I was a kid, we called them “live forevers”. Live forevers will be described later in this article.

The Christmas cactus is a native of southeast Brazil and primarily grows at an altitude of 2-7 thousand feet in mountainous areas. In Brazil, they are called “Flor de Maio” because they bloom in early summer. Christmas cactus are one of the cacti families. However, their growing conditions are similar to that of Orchids. They grow on the moss of trees and rocky environments where the humidity is relatively high. The flowers of the Christmas can range from white to red to purple with pink, yellow, and orange filling in the blanks.

Christmas cactus make an excellent house plant with minimum care required. They can grow in a shallow bowl filled with a soil consisting of a mixture of potting soil and coarse sand. They do require attention to their water needs. They do best if the soil is kept slightly moist. Too much or too little water can be detrimental to their overall health. Too much water can kill the plants and if left in a dry condition can do the same. To feed them, add a small amount of well composted vegetation to the top of the soil that they are planted in. The plants do not need a whole lot of sunlight so keep them in an area with a north window during the winter and a south window in the summer.

The plants can be made to bloom at the appropriate time such as Thanksgiving or Christmas. Cover the plants with a dark cloth or place them in a dark closet for at least 16 hours per day. The ideal temperature for this process is 61 degrees Fahrenheit. Start this dark treatment about 2 weeks before you would like the plants to bloom. After eight days of the darkness treatment, move the plant to its normal position in the house and the blooms that have set in the darkness will mature.

Young Christmas cactus plants can be purchased at your favorite nursery or gardening center. However, if you have a friend that grows them maybe if you talk real nice to him or her that person will give you a few leaves which are actually the stems of the plants. Plant each of the leaves in a potting soil made up of 1/3 each of coarse sand, and well composted leaves or other organic plant matter and native soil. Plant the each of the leaves to a depth of about 1/4 of its length in the potting soil. Keep the soil moist, but not wet, and within about two weeks the leaf will develop roots. Transfer to a larger pot and it will grow.

As I mentioned before, Christmas cactus were sometimes referred to as “live forevers” because you could start with one leaf or segment of the plant and over the years, harvest some of the leaves and repot them for gifts or to perpetuate your own plant virtually forever.

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