Lyn Chimera is a Master Gardener, consultant and lecturer.
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By: Lyn Chimera
Christmas cactus(Schlumbergera buckleyi)is a very popular gift plant during the holidays. It’s the gift that keeps on giving as it makes an easy to care for house plant that will give years of pleasure and beautiful blooms.
This year I was given one at Thanksgiving which had more blooms and buds than I had ever seen. Usually there are 1 or maybe 2 blooms per stem but this one had up to FIVE! One bloom and the rest buds. After the first bloom flush faded there was a second flush but after that the remaining buds just dropped off. Obviously, this was an unusual Christmas cactus, so I decided to do a little research.
What an amazingly interesting plant! Most of the plants sold in stores today are hybrids of S. russelliana and S. truncata. The hybrid type determines when it will bloom. There are over 200 cultivars of these plants which give a variety of flower colors.
The other shocker was they aren’t desert cactus at all, originating in the rain forests of Brazil. They typically grow in trees like epiphytes. Who knew? Since they don’t naturally grow in arid conditions they do need to be watered, but not too much.
The two most common varieties are Christmas and Thanksgiving cactus. Thanksgiving cactus is described as having leaves shaped like crab claws with two to four pointy serrated segments on each side (which mine has). The end of each segment is slightly concave. The leaves of Christmas cactus have a more rounded, scalloped edge with a slightly curved end. Both have similar flowers that mostly bloom from the end but sometimes from a leaf join. The flowers look like 2 flowers together one, coming out of the other. A fascinating and showy bloom. Christmas cactus blooms commonly come in pink or white while the Thanksgiving variety also includes red, peach, purple, or orange.
Another surprise was these are not leaves at all but stem segments that are flattened and green to allow for photosynthesis.
Caring for your Christmas/Thanksgiving cactus is easy. Water them when the top inch of soil in the container feels dry to the touch. Soak the soil until water runs through the pot’s drainage holes; wait a few minutes; and then discard any excess water that has accumulated in the drip pan beneath the pot. Overwatering can cause root rot which is indicated by leaves turning a pinkish hue. They prefer humid conditions which is understandable originating in a rain forest. Grouping them with other plants, pebble treys and misting all can be helpful in increasing humidity. Christmas cactus like light but not direct sunlight in the summer which should burn the stems whether the plant is indoors or out.
These cacti thrive if put outdoors for the summer. A sunny spot with shelter from the direct afternoon sun is a good site. I keep mine on the screen porch where they get bright light. The other advantage of putting them outside is that the cooler temperatures in fall help encourage the blossoming response. This season they were outside until November, but it was a warm fall. When temps overnight get to mid-40s I bring them in during the warmest part of the day to avoid shock.
My 1st Christmas cactus was from a cutting my mother gave me over 40 years ago. It blooms every year and gives me great pleasure. Now I’ll have one blooming for Thanksgiving and Christmas.
If you want to learn more including how to propagate (which is super easy) go to: