Cooperative Extension Service 
Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences
Hendry County Extension P. O. Box 68 LaBelle, Florida 33975-0068 Phone (863) 674-4092

Hendry County Horticulture News

Christmas Cactus - A Great holiday Gift Idea

Christmas is nearly upon us and this is the time for giving and receiving gifts including flowering potted plants.  A bright, colorful azalea, Christmas begonia, chrysanthemum or a gaily decorated poinsettia, kalanchoe, or Christmas cactus added to the other decorations in the home helps give the holiday season a festive air.

While the poinsettia remains the most popular of the holiday plants, a healthy Christmas cactus in full bloom is a great gift idea for that special gardener.  They are easy to care for and can be grown indoors throughout the year.  The flowers range in color from yellow, salmon, pink, fuschia and white or combinations of those colors.

The Christmas Cactus (Schlumbergerea spp.) is actually any one of a group of epiphytic cactuses native to the South American jungles.  Their scientific name is in honor of the Belgian explorer,  horticulturist, and plant collector Frederick Schlumberger, who discovered the genus in the 1800's.

These Christmas plants can be enjoyed not only during the holidays but will remain attractive far into the New Year and can give year round enjoyment if properly cared for.  A well drained soil is a must for Christmas cactus.  Use a commercially packaged potting mix for succulent plants or mix your own composed of equal parts of garden soil, compost and clean coarse sand.  Add a quart of wood ashes per bushel of mixture and one tenth part by bulk of old dry cow manure may be added if your garden soil is poor.

The Christmas cactus is not a true cactus and is not quite as drought tolerant as  name implies.  However, it is a succulent plant and can store a reasonable quantity of water in the leaves.  Water thoroughly when the top half of the soil in the pot 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.  During the summer, water frequently so the soil is kept continually moist.  When fall arrives, water the plant only well enough to prevent wilting.  After the plant completes blooming, let it rest by withholding water for six weeks.  When new growth appears, resume watering to keep soil fairly moist.

While the Christmas cactus can adapt to low light, more abundant blooms are produced on plants that have been exposed to high light intensity.  Plants can be moved outdoors in summer, but keep them in a shady or semi shady location.  Too much direct sunlight can burn the leaves.  When it's time to bring the plants back inside in the fall, slowly adjust the plants to life indoors by gradually increasing the number of hours they spend indoors each day.

A well tended cactus will reach unmanageable size in time.  The Christmas Cactus is easily propagated by taking short Y-shaped cuttings of the stem tips.  To root cuttings for new plants, cut back shoots from the tips, cut at the second joint of each tip.  Place cuttings in a moist peat and perlite, or peat and sand mixture.  Water sparingly at first to prevent rotting of cuttings.  After two or three weeks, water as you would any other cutting.  When cuttings are rooted, pot them in a very loose mixture of good potting soil.

Christmas cactus are easy to grow but are sometimes difficult to get to bloom.  A medium light intensity and a soil high in organic matter are recommended.  Do not allow the plant to dry out, water when the soil surface begins to feel dry.  Cool temperatures or long nights are required to induce blooming.

Flowering is related to day length and night time temperatures.  The temperature range for flower bud development is between 55 and 60 degrees for a period of six weeks.  As long as the temperatures remain in this range they will develop buds regardless of day length.  If the temperatures are above the required range, the plant will need 13 hours of uninterrupted darkness each night.  One can accomplish this by placing them in  a completely dark room, or by covering them for the recommended time, or longer, each night with a dark piece of cloth.  For holiday blooms this usually means in late September to mid October or simply keep the plants outside in the fall under natural light until buds develop.

During flower bud formation, stop fertilizing and only water enough to keep the leaves from becoming shriveled.  Once buds do form then you can keep the plant in normal light and temperatures.  Keep it evenly moist and fertilize every other week with a mild fertilizer solution.

Common causes of bud dropping are over watering, exposure to cold drafts, a position too close to a hot radiator or vent and lack of sufficient potash in the soil.  Treat by watering sparingly and feeding a little liquid manure weekly.

Problems with pests are few but Christmas cacti can be devastated by snails or caterpillars.  Do not use diazinon products on your plants it can cause stunting and distortion.  Watch out for fungus rot, use a good fungicide to prevent.  Root mealy bug, when found, should be treated by submersion of the plant in an insecticide. Submerge the pot until no more air bubbles are seen.  This insures that the root system is saturated, and the root ball is thoroughly treated.  Repeat as necessary.

These plants never seem to go out of popularity in part because of their beautiful flowers.  By giving your Christmas cactus the best environmental conditions of proper temperature, adequate water, and good light, they will furnish an attractive display for a long time.  These durable plants can live for a long time, up to 20 years.

Gene McAvoy is the horticulture agent with the Hendry County Extension Service.  Direct your horticulture questions to PO Box 68, LaBelle, FL 33975,  e-mail - or phone 863-674-4092 or  863-983-1598.  You are also welcome to visit the Hendry County Extension Office at 225 Pratt Blvd., LaBelle.   Office hours are from 8:00 - 5:00.

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