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Penny O'Sullivan Looks at What's Bloomin' in December: Caring for Christmas Cactus

Caring for your Christmas Cactus - Coastal Home Magazine
Photograph by Penny O'Sullivan

Last year, my husband’s company sent him a big, blooming cactus (Schlumbergera) a few weeks before Christmas. This tropical cactus, commonly known as Thanksgiving or Christmas cactus, produces hot pink flowers at the tips of arched, crab-like, segmented stems. Our cactus is technically a Thanksgiving cactus with sharply toothed stems. With little fuss, our cactus started blooming this year just after Thanksgiving and is flowering today.

Yay—a houseplant that thrives on benign neglect! I never fertilized our Christmas cactus, nor do I water it with regularity. Last summer, I set it outdoors, where a workman moved it to a heavily planted, mulched bed by a dense, weeping Japanese maple. There it disappeared until leaf drop. Turns out this plant found just the conditions it liked—my plant is a Truncata-Group cultivar, derived from plants that grew in somewhat cool, shady, humid places in the coastal mountains of southeastern Brazil.

Want a healthy Christmas cactus that grows for years? Here are some growing tips:

1. Water: Stick your finger in the soil—if the top inch feels dry, water it. Avoid overwatering and underwatering. Parched plants drop their flower buds, and wet plants die.
2. Light: Place this cactus in bright, indirect light. Too much strong light makes stems ruddy. For flower buds, plants should have 12 or more hours of darkness each night for an extended period—about six weeks—starting in early October.
3. Repotting: Use soil that drains freely and is slightly acidic.
4. Make more plants: Remove a couple of stem segments from the plant, drying for a few days, then inserting the torn, callused end into growing medium. Propagation works best in summer when days are long and nights are short.

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