by Judy Kautz, OSU Extension Master Gardener
Have you see holiday cactus for sale in stores this season? This is the time of year when they become readily available. One of the most popular houseplants, Christmas cactus is a great way to add a burst of color indoors during dreary winter months. If poinsettias and amaryllis are not your cup of tea for holiday blooms, why not try a holiday cactus? These plants are known for their colorful tubular flowers and ease of care, and they are readily available in our area. They make wonderful houseplants or summer garden plants, and they are a perfect holiday gift for that hard-to-buy-for person.
There are actually three types of holiday cacti (see photo): the Christmas cactus has flattened leaves with rounded teeth on the margins; the Thanksgiving cactus has pointed teeth, and Easter cactus has pointed teeth with fibrous hairs in the leaf joints. Interestingly, under normal conditions holiday cactus will bloom close to the holiday of its name, but these plants can be forced to bloom at other times. And to make things a little more confusing, most of the Christmas cactus sold are actually Thanksgiving cactus, and they will bloom in subsequent years at Thanksgiving time!
This photo helps you easily identify the three different types of cactus that are available.
Holiday cacti are really very easy to care for and will flourish in most homes. When the plants are in flower, they should be kept in bright, indirect light, because too much light will cause the flower to fade, or the heat may cause the flower buds to drop. Ideal temperatures are 70 degrees during the day and 60-65 degrees at night.
Be sure to water your cactus thoroughly, and let the plant dry only slightly between watering. Even though they are called cactus, they are not as drought-tolerant as their cactus name suggests. The leaves will wrinkle if the soil is dry, and during flowering, letting them dry too much will cause the flower buds to drop.
Once the flowers fade, you may continue to grow your cactus as a house plant. Soil should be well drained, and a fertilizer should be applied monthly between April and October using a complete houseplant fertilizer. To encourage branching and more flowers, prune your plant in June; just remove a few sections of each stem with your fingers or a sharp knife. An added benefit is that the removed pieces can easily be rooted in moist vermiculite to make more plants!
This is a Thanksgiving cactus with points on its leaves, and pink is a very common color for this variety.
Holiday cacti flourish if placed in a shady spot in your garden during the summer, until the temperatures get below 45 degrees. The naturally longer nights and cool temperatures in late summer also encourage flower development. Getting them to flower, though, requires some understanding of the plant itself. Holiday cacti are short day plants, which means they bloom when nights are at least 15 hours long. They will also flower if they are exposed to prolonged cool temperatures between 50-55 degrees. No flowers will form in night temperatures above 70 degrees.
Holiday cacti grow and flower best when the roots are a little cramped, so they do not need to be repotted annually. Repotting is only necessary when the soil becomes compacted or the plants have completely outgrown their containers. The best time to repot holiday cacti is spring or early summer (when the plants are no longer blooming).
Here is information about regular maintenance for your cactus. A Christmas cactus loves being pot-bound, and you only need to repot it every two years, at most. However, you may have to replace the soil more often that you need to change pots. The only other regular maintenance you need to do is pruning. The plant can get rather leggy, and its branches will start to drop because it couldn’t support its weight. As such, you can prune away or cut off a piece to propagate. Moreover, after blooming, simply pinch off the ends of the plant’s stems to encourage branching.
Holiday cacti are available locally in most garden centers; they are a great alternative to bring color into your home during the drab days of winter!
The beautiful red color of this holiday cactus is perfect for Christmas.
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