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Grow Holiday Cactus Without Much Effort
By Norman Winter
Central Mississippi Research & Extension Center
My favorite holiday plant is the Christmas cactus. I never cease to be amazed by its durability and beauty.
It is one of those plants that triggers fierce arguments over its botanical name. Whether it is a Christmas cactus or a Thanksgiving cactus, I am just thankful for it whenever it blooms. The New Royal Horticultural Dictionary says it is no longer called zygocactus. Botanically speaking, most of the Christmas cactus sold are Schlumbergera x buckleyi, which is a cross between S. truncata and S. russeliana. In fact, there are more than 200 named cultivars.
These hybrids may be a little more like the S. truncata that blooms in late autumn, or they may be a little more like S. russeliana and bloom later. The bloom period is somewhat controlled by the amount of uninterrupted darkness the plant receives. You can delay blooming by giving more light. Once the plant receives 12 to 14 hours of uninterrupted darkness each day, buds will start to form.
The odd thing to a horticulturist like myself is that this plant is a true cactus, no thorns mind you, and it is native to the South American rain forest. In Brazil, they grow suspended on tree trunks and limbs alongside orchids and bromeliads, wherever rainwater quickly drains away. Their flowers are almost iridescent in shades of lavender, fuchsia, orange and red.
There are two nice ones in my office that I have had for a number of years. I would be ashamed to tell you what kind of loving care they get. Any plant in my office usually dies a painful death due to spidermites, mealybugs or neglect.
These cactus get abandoned for weeks if not months, and then as if to say I forgive you, they reward me each year with exotic blossoms.
The next statement may be like the politician or preacher who says to "do what I say and not what I do." Keep them in a bright cool location. Keep the soil moist, but not soggy. Don't fertilize until growth begins in the spring.
Once temperatures stay above freezing you can move the Christmas cactus outdoors for the spring and summer. Keep it in an area that is shaded, especially in the afternoon. Feed with a dilute water-soluble fertilizer every time you water.
Around the first of October next year, place it in an area where it will receive no light for about 12 hours each late afternoon and night. In my office, they are sitting on shelves by northern windows and never get moved. Buds should start to develop around the first of November and open between Thanksgiving and Christmas.
You can start new Christmas cacti by simply taking stem sections of two or three segments and sticking them in very porous, moist potting soil. I really like sand best of all. They will root very quickly.
The best advice is not to get involved in the taxonomic argument. They will probably change the name in a couple of years anyway. It may have changed already, and I just don't know it. Do get involved in growing this plant. This is the easiest holiday plant to get to re-bloom, and your children and grandchildren will love watching the plant and then growing their own from your plant.