Caring for Your Christmas Cactus After Christmas

2015-12 Christmas CactusChristmas Cactus is a hardy plant that will live for years or even decades if cared for properly. If you have the time, the inclination, and a dedicated space with its own thermostat and light source you can manage your plant down the specific degree and minute. There are lots of web sites that provide excruciating detail! I’m going to provide a quick set of instructions that work well for me without having to devote my life to the care of my Christmas cacti. First of all, many plants sold today as Christmas cacti are actually Thanksgiving cacti, or a hybrid. So, it can be hard to tell exactly when your plant is going to bloom. The earlier-blooming Thanksgiving cactus or Schlumbergera truncata has stem segments with pointed teeth and flowers that are held more or less horizontally. The flowers of Thanksgiving cacti have yellow pollen. The later-blooming, old-fashioned Christmas cactus or Schlumbergera buckleyi has stem segments with rounded teeth and flowers that hang down. The flowers of Christmas cacti have pink pollen. Again, lots more information online! Care for both species is similar, so, for the purposes of this article, I am going to refer to these plants as Christmas cacti, even though all of mine are probably S. truncata. As long as I have a healthy plant that blooms in late fall and/or early winter, I’m happy! Christmas cacti like bright light but not direct sun, which will burn the leaves. Keep your plant in front of a window that has sheer curtain or on a table away from the window so that it doesn’t sit directly in harsh sunlight. Christmas cacti love being outside in the summer. I place mine in light shade and leave them outside until October, bringing them inside when temperatures start to drop into the 40s. The combination of light and temperature that my plants are exposed to outside in the early fall seems to do the trick in getting them to set buds. Once I bring them inside, I keep them in a relatively cool room, away from direct sun and heat sources, and make sure that the lights are turned off at night. But I don’t go to great lengths to treat them to the specific temperatures or hours of darkness that many websites advocate! A Christmas cactus is a tropical cactus, not a desert cactus. Unlike most desert cacti, Christmas cacti cannot tolerate completely dry soil. That being said, there are times when they need less water. Your Christmas cactus wants a rest period after it blooms, which means that you can stop watering it for a month after it finishes blooming, which would typically be the month of January. Come February, start watering once a week, but don’t soak the plant or you will shock the roots. Starting in March and through the spring and summer, water your plant regularly and thoroughly, but don’t let it sit in water. How often you water during the growing season depends on the climate. If you bring your plant outside, you might need to water it every couple of days if it is hot and dry. If you keep your plant inside, you might be watering it only once a week. In October, you can cut back on watering again to encourage the plant to set buds, and then water regularly in November and December once the buds have developed and while the plant is in bloom. Christmas cacti also like high humidity, so consider setting your pots on pebbles in a tray with water. Fertilize every other week in spring and summer with a diluted houseplant fertilizer and stop fertilizing in October. January, or any time just after your plant has bloomed, is a great time to prune your Christmas cactus. If you are pruning your plant to reduce its size, you can remove up to one-third of the plant per year. If you are trimming your plant to make it grow in more fully, you only need to trim the end one or two segments of the stems. It is very easy to root Christmas cactus cuttings. Start a new plant now, and it will make a great Christmas gift next year! Take a cutting with two or three branches. Let the cutting dry so that it doesn’t rot when you pot it up. Some people recommend that you let it dry for no more than two or three hours. Others say that you should let it dry for one to seven days. Refer to your favorite houseplant website, or experiment and report back to us! Put one or more cuttings into a pot filled with damp potting soil formulated for cacti and succulents. Insert the cuttings just deep enough so that they will stand upright. It will take a few weeks for your cuttings to develop roots, so you can wait until February, when you start watering its parent plant again, to water the cuttings. Christmas cacti flower best when they are slightly pot-bound, so you only have to repot every three years or so. The best time for repotting is between February and April. Remember, you will hear different advice from everyone you ask and every website you consult. These are hardy plants that will probably reward you with at least a few spectacular blooms just as winter arrives, even if you don't follow the directions to the letter. Experiment and enjoy!