The poinsettia is overrated. Though its festive blooms are pretty enough at first, after a few months it becomes unattractive and falls prey to problems like spider mites and dropped leaves, forcing you to toss it out. Holiday cacti, on the other hand, are easy to grow, beautiful both in and out of season, and easy to coax back into bloom each year.
There are two so-called holiday cacti that flower before Christmas. The Thanksgiving cactus (Schlumbergera truncata) unsurprisingly blooms around Thanksgiving, and the Christmas cactus (Schlumbergera bridgesii) blooms closer to Christmas. To keep it simple, we’ll refer to these two species and their hybrids as holiday cacti.
When the iridescent blooms have all fallen off, that’s just the beginning. If you give your holiday cactus good drainage, damp (not wet) soil and bright indirect light, it will stay healthy. Getting it to re-bloom next year requires cool, long nights in the autumn months. If you want to make more plants, plant seeds or cuttings. Here are some tips for growing holiday cacti that will spread joy year-round.
If your holiday cactus came with a cellophane wrapper around the pot, remove it. Water will accumulate and stagnate in the wrapper, rotting the roots and stems, and eventually killing the plant.
While pots with drainage holes are ideal, you may choose to place the plant inside a decorative pot without a drainage hole, called a cachepot. If so, remove the cactus and its original plastic container when it’s time to water. Let the excess water drip into the sink before placing the plant back in its cachepot.
Damp soil and fertilizer
Even though they are technically rainforest cacti, overwatering is the best way to kill a holiday cactus. To prevent this, keep the potting mix just slightly damp, letting the top half-inch of the potting mix dry out before watering again.
Fertilizing isn’t necessary, but will still lead to a fuller, healthier plant. Feed with an orchid fertilizer according to label instructions.
Bright indirect light
Since the holiday cactus grows in the rainforest instead of a desert, it does not need nearly as much sun as its prickly cousins. All it needs is bright indirect light — bright enough to read comfortably without flipping on the light switch, yet not so sunny that you can actually see the sun itself from the plant’s vantage point. If you can see the outline of your shadow, then it’s sunny enough to ‘burn’ the flattened stems of your cactus.
Long, cool nights in fall
A holiday cactus needs two things to bloom well next year: Cool night temperatures in fall, and long nights. The long nights are easy enough to provide; just keep it away from artificial light in the months leading up to blooming.
To give the plant cool nights, place it in a sunroom, foyer, or any other well-lit area that gets cool but doesn’t dip below 40 degrees.
How to plant cuttings
Here’s something else you can do when your holiday cacti have finished blooming: propagate them!
To make more plants for friends and family, start by choosing a healthy stem with one to four pads, and make a cut right below a joint. Let the wounds callous over and heal for a few days before dipping the cut end in rooting hormone (optional) and inserting the bottom segment into a small pot with half orchid mix and half potting mix. Plain potting mix will also do.
Place the cuttings in a well-lit area and keep the potting mix lightly moist. You can plant many stems in a single pot this way, getting a full and lush plant in just a few years.
It may take a while before it’s ready to bloom again, but holiday cacti make such attractive houseplants that the time will just fly by.
How to plant seeds
Another way to make more holiday cactus plants is to plant seeds. If you notice berries forming after blooming, let them become fat and transparent before breaking apart the fruit and placing the seeds in water to let them separate from the pulp.
Then smear the clean seeds on a piece of tissue paper. Add some potting mix, vermiculite or coir to a clear container, and place the seeded tissue paper on top.
Water lightly and replace the lid to keep moisture in place. The tissue paper will dissolve by the time seedlings have sprouted. When the seedlings have developed sturdy roots and new pads, re-pot them in a mixture of half orchid mix and half potting mix.
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