Caring for Holiday Cactus
By: Julie Day
A popular gift to brighten the colder months, the group of plants known as “Holiday Cactus” get their names because of their ability (with a little help) to bloom during holiday seasons. Most popular are Thanksgiving Cactus (Schlumbergera truncata), Christmas Cactus (Schlumbergera bridgesii), and Easter Cactus (Hatiora gaertneri), with many hybrids and colors available.
These plants are easy to grow and are often passed down through the generations – my first one came from my mother, who got it from her mother. With holiday cactus, the million-dollar question isn’t how to grow it, but how to make it bloom. With a little extra attention during the fall months, you can have your plants blooming for the holidays.
About Holiday Cactus
The name “cactus” is a little misleading, as these plants are not related to the spiny, fleshy cacti we know and love. Instead, they are “epiphytes,” which means that they nestle in the high branches of rainforest trees, taking their nutrition from pockets of decaying plant matter and adapting to the water shortages as rain quickly drains away.
Many orchids and bromeliads are also epiphytes. This growth habit makes these plants more adapted to the somewhat drier conditions and filtered sunlight of the tropical tree canopy, which helps them live as houseplants in temperate climates.
The blooms of holiday cactus come in many colors, including white, pink, red, purple, and salmon-orange. Older plants will have long, arching stems that make them well-suited to hanging baskets or plant stands.
Holiday Cactus Grower’s Calendar
Don’t be intimidated by the word “calendar,” since these plants actually thrive on benign neglect. They need very little in the way of nutrients, occasional watering, and can even be stowed away in a cool spare room. Nevertheless, these monthly tips will help your plant thrive and bloom on demand.
- January: If you received a holiday cactus as a gift, you get to start out easy. Let your plant rest for about a month after blooming. Keep it in a cool spot with indirect light, and water it sparingly until growth starts.
- February: Starting now through April, you can repot your holiday cactus if needed. They like to be root-bound, so try to resist the urge unless you feel the plant is suffering due to poor soil.
- March: When new growth begins, you can pinch or prune your plant. These cuttings can be rooted to make more plants!
- April – September: This is the plant’s growing season. If you wish, you can feed it every few weeks with an all-purpose plant food with a 1-1-1 ratio. If you move it outdoors, keep it in a cool, shady spot. Water when the top inch of soil feels dry (no more than once a week), but only water enough to moisten the root ball – do not repeatedly soak the plant, and don’t leave water in the drainage tray.
- September – October: This is the more critical time for ensuring your holiday cactus will bloom. Beginning in September, put your holiday cactus in a cool room (ideally around 50° F) with indirect bright light for 10-12 hours and total darkness for 12-14 hours. “Total darkness” means just that – no daylight, and no artificial light, either. You can easily achieve this by moving your plants in and out of a dark closet, or by covering them with a thick fabric cover – just take care that the cover doesn’t break the plant. They’ll need these conditions for 6-8 weeks to ensure flower bud formation. Stop fertilizing, and reduce watering to keep the soil just barely moist (once every couple of weeks).
- November – December: When your plant is full of flower buds, you can stop the light-dark routine and bring your plant out to be enjoyed. Resume moderate watering. The cooler the location, the longer the blooms will last!
Holiday Cactus Tips
- Don’t expose these plants to freezing temperatures! Despite their love of cooler temperatures, they are still tropical plants that won’t withstand freezing conditions.
- They like about 50-60% humidity, which can be achieved using a pebble tray.
- Never place your holiday cactus near a heat register, exterior door, or drafty window, and keep it out of burning sunlight.
- Holiday cactus can easily be propagated by cuttings. Pinch off a section of stem that has 2-3 jointed segments. Let the cuttings dry for a few hours, then push them in a small pot with the same planting mix as the adult plant. Treat the cuttings just like an adult plant, and within a few weeks they’ll be rooted and growing.
- Don’t fall into the trap of constantly repotting into a bigger pot. Holiday cactus likes to be root-bound, and repotting every 2-3 years (even back into the same pot) is plenty. If you repot, use a sterile, well-draining potting soil such as those packaged for African violets, orchids, or bromeliads.