While the poinsettia remains the most popular holiday plant, a healthy Christmas cactus in full bloom makes a great gift or decoration. Christmas cactus is easy to care for and can be grown indoors throughout the year. The flowers range in color from yellow, salmon, pink, fuchsia, and white or combinations of those colors.
When a Christmas cactus is taken to its permanent home, place it in a sunny location indoors. A north or east window gives the ideal light. If you want to grow it indoors in a south or west window, you should shade the plant with thin curtains.
Christmas cactus is a succulent plant and can store a reasonable quantity of water in the leaves. However, it is not as drought tolerant as you think. Water thoroughly when the top half of the growing mix feels dry to the touch. The length of time between watering will vary with the air temperature, amount of light, rate of growth and relative humidity.
Humidity is important to Christmas cactus. Place the container on a tray of pebbles. Keep water in the tray to increase humidity around the plant. Continue caring for the plant this way until the plant finishes blooming.
After blooming is done, let the plant rest by withholding water for six weeks. Resume watering then to keep soil fairly moist but let the surface dry out. As tender growth appears in the spring, transfer the plant to a new container if needed or top-dress with fresh growing mix. Well‑drained potting mix is a must for Christmas cactus. Use a commercially packaged potting mix for succulent plants. Plants should be repotted every two or three years or whenever the container is filled with roots. Plants that appear unhealthy can be repotted any time of year. Follow up by applying half the recommended rate of a liquid houseplant fertilizer every 2 to 3 weeks.
Christmas cactus can be moved outdoors in summer but should be kept in a partial to full shaded area. Direct sunlight can burn the leaves. Some growers move plants to the shade of a porch or patio for the summer. During summer, water to keep the growing mix moist after it dries on top.
When fall arrives in September, move the plant indoors after making sure no insects are tagging along. Spraying with a stream of water knocks off most insects that may try to hitch a ride. Place the Christmas cactus in a sunny location like it was before it went outside for vacation. High light intensity is important to flower development.
As part of fall maintenance, water only well enough to prevent wilting. You should let the top half of the potting mix to get dry before watering. Don’t forget the pebble tray with water for humidity. During the month of October, do not water the plant unless it wilts. You may cautiously resume watering in November. Over-watering causes branches to droop and break. Water when the surface of the growing mix dries out.
Christmas cactus is easy to grow but can be difficult to get to bloom again according to some. Although warm temperatures are good during the growing season, cool temperatures are important for flowering. From October on, keep the plant where temperatures are between 60 to 65 degrees. Keep Christmas cactus away from heat vents, fireplaces, or other sources of hot air. As long as temperatures remain in this range for a period of six weeks, flower buds will develop.
If there is no place where you can keep temperatures in this range, you need to give the plant 13 hours of uninterrupted darkness each night to cause flowering starting around the first of October. Place the Christmas cactus in a completely dark room each night or cover each night with a dark piece of cloth or box.
During the period of flower bud formation starting in October, stop fertilizing and only water enough to keep the leaves from wilting. Do this by watering when the top half of the growing mix gets dry.
Once buds form, keep Christmas cactus in the medium to high light it likes and normal home temperatures. When the top of the growing mix dries, water to keep the plant evenly moist. Fertilize Christmas cactus every other week with a half rate of liquid houseplant fertilizer. Good luck with Christmas cactus and all your indoor and outdoor gardening in the coming year.
If you have any gardening or landscaping questions this winter, give the Extension Master Gardener Volunteers of Pitt County a call at 902-1705 or email questions to firstname.lastname@example.org. You can find more information about gardening in Pitt County at http://pitt.ces.ncsu.edu including information about meeting Paul James, the Gardener Guy, on January 25 right here in Greenville.