The Christmas Cactus

What Did The Porcupine Say To The Cactus?… Hey There Good Looking!

I and many others I’m sure are very happy with the reprieve from Mother Nature on what is supposed to be a cold and snowy El Nino winter.  This will last a bit longer and thankfully has allowed time to get leaves down off the trees and cleaned up although a few are sticking stubbornly.  A friend has given me this subject matter to investigate that many are not aware of but many grow this plant and always it brings great joy during the Christmas season. 

The Christmas cactus is truly not a cactus at all but a succulent that grows in the forest regions of Brazil and as such is not treated like a cactus, like a succulent it grows on other plants and rocks allowing the roots to breathe    It is of the same family as the Thanksgiving and Easter Cactus, blooming of course at Christmas should all requirements be met.  These requirements are quite similar to each of these Cacti with a few small but vital differences.  To tell these 3 apart one should note that the Thanksgiving Cactus has very sharp points on its leaves almost claw shaped usually 2 to four per side and its blooms come in many colours, the Christmas Cactus has more rounded scalloped edges to its leaves and it usually blooms in white or pink,  the Easter Cactus has very rounded leaves with fine hair like tufts on the ends. 

They are all known as “short day plants” and basically require the same nutrient, water and sunlight to ensure we have the blooms in the season we want them.  All should be grown in indirect light such as what we would get in an eastern facing window any show of red in the plants leaves indicate too much sun and therefore should be moved to more indirect light source.  It should also be protected from too much and too little water as well as any direct heat sources.  These plants usually live up to 30 years but also have been documented to be up to 150 years old and passed from generation to generation.  My Mother In Law brought one out to me for my wedding (she is a gifted horticulturist, she with my dear Father In Law started the Quebec Rose Society and knew their stuff!) and it took me 10 years for me to kill it, I could  not get it to bloom, It grew a minor leaf once, wilted often and then finally expired. I hope still to get a cutting from her so I can try again. 

Cuttings are easy to grow all one need do is take any limbs that fall off or take cuttings by twisting the stem off at the leaf junctures and place them in water until roots appear.  This pruning should be done once the plant has flowered up to early spring this will help the plant become fuller and bushier and which will increase the number of blooms on your plant.  It should be planted and repotted in soil that is suitable to succulents a mixture of about 2/3 potting soil, 1/3 sand, a very porous mix that can also include cocoa fibre and charcoal, this mix being good for other succulents and orchids.  Drainage is important as is the size of your pot.  This plant needs good drainage and likes to be root bound repotting only occurring every 3 to 5 years and only one pot size each time.  Only water when the plant has dried out, fertilize every few weeks with a fertilizer that is meant for succulents.  Epsom salts every few weeks will be beneficial as they love the magnesium but should be done alternate to regular fertilization.  Now the important part, to get it to flower,  this requires proper sunlight (or lack of) and a cooling of temperature to 60 to 65 degrees, with a duration of 14 to 16 hours per day for the Christmas Cactus and for a period of 4 to 6 weeks and should be started early so that the buds can form and then be moved back to regular household plant requirements.  The Easter Cactus requires more time in this environment 8 to 12 weeks.  For both be sure to ease off the watering requirement and ensure protection from drafts as although a few of the buds may drop a complete drop will cause flowering to delay another year.  Basically they are very disease free other than the rot that will occur to the roots if over watered.  Sounds easy doesn’t it!

Happy Gardening!

Samantha Nason
BS Ranch & Greenhouses
250 547 6567 • samanthanason@hotmail.com

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