Shamokin PA

Growing holiday cacti … easy peasy

Whether it’s a Christmas cactus, Thanksgiving cactus or Easter cactus, as houseplants go, this is one of the most perfectly perfect choices.

If you are lucky enough to receive one as a gift, learning how to care for it will give you pleasure for years to come. All are epiphytic cacti, with the Thanksgiving and Christmas cacti belonging to the genus Schlumbergera and the Easter cactus belonging to the Rhipsalidopsis genus.

Common names were given based on the time of year each blooms. All appear similar, but do have slight differences in the shape of their stem segments and stamen colors. None have leaves, but instead, thickened leaf shaped stem segments where photosynthesis occurs and buds are produced. Blossoms come in a wide range of colors including red, pink, orange, peach, yellow, purple, and white, and put on a beautiful show during the flowering period. Between bloom times, the shape and lush green of the stem segments are delightfully interesting, and make great indoor hanging baskets or potted wonders. All are easily cared for and thrive with minimal attention.

So let’s start with the basics:

First, the soil should be light and well drained. You won’t need to repot often….maybe once every 3 years or so. These plants do well when they are a little root bound. In their natural habitat, they can grow attached to trees, other plants, and rock crevices. The roots do like some air flow, so choose a soil that doesn’t get compacted or waterlogged.

Next, light should be bright, but not direct sunshine. Putting them outside in hot sun can burn them, so indirect light is best. Ideally, they should be in a spot unaffected by artificial light too, since they need periods of dark to set bud. Even a few hours of artificial light can influence that.

Temperatures should never drop below 50 or go above 90. These cacti love growing season temperatures between 70 and 80 degrees. Falling temperatures are another signal for them to set bud. That happens when days grow shorter and temperatures fall into the 60s with nighttime temperatures in the 50s.

Water sparingly, about once a week or when the top third of the soil is dry. Soil should be moist, but let the water drain and do not let the pot set in water. The roots like air and sitting in water will cause root rot and drown your babies. During bud setting and maturing the soil should be kept evenly moist, but otherwise, let the soil at the top of the pot dry out between waterings. Thanksgiving and Christmas cacti are native to the rainforest, so they may prefer a bit more water or humidity. If they seem a little thirsty, set the pot on top a dish of pebbles with water in the bottom to add more moisture to the air.

Fertilize your baby once a month with half-strength 20-10-20 or 20-20-20 with trace elements. Since the plants like magnesium, also feed once a month during the growing season with a solution of Epsom salts 1 teaspoon per gallon of water. Do not feed the Epsom salts in the same week as the fertilizer though. Also, feeding should be stopped during the dormant season to encourage the best bud production.

Pruning is not necessary, but pinching back stems (especially in May or June) will encourage a fuller, more even plant and maybe even more blossoms. Stem segments under an inch in length will not push buds, so pinching back to a stem segment an inch or longer will coax the plant into pushing a bud at the end of the stem where the smaller leaves were broken off.

Getting a plant to rebloom in subsequent years is not all that difficult. The first trick is eliminating artificial light. Temperatures dropping and days becoming shorter are nature’s signals for the plant to set bud and eventually blossom, so about 12 hours of darkness a day begins the process. Even a few more hours of light during the dark period can interrupt this, so it is best to have your plants in a place naturally lit. If this isn’t possible all the time, then the plants should be moved to a place with 10 to 12 hours of darkness about 6 weeks before you want buds to begin to set (about mid-September for Thanksgiving and Christmas varieties.) Also, neglecting the plants a bit will encourage bud production. Cut back on feeding and reduce watering when the growing season is done. Don’t let plants completely dry out or temperatures to drop below 50 degrees though, because bud dropping can start if those things happen.

Propagation of these cacti is easy too, and they can readily be shared. Best time to propagate is spring or early summer when the growing season is beginning. Break off pieces of stem with 3 or 4 segments. Lay them on the counter for a few days for the broken edges to callus or harden off a bit. Once that’s done, place the stems about an inch deep in a pot of soft, loose, moist (but not wet) potting soil. Place the pot on a sunny windowsill and new growth should begin in a month or two.

A plastic bag can be tented loosely over the pot and secured with a rubber band at the top edge of the pot. This produces a greenhouse effect and promotes rooting. If used, the plastic should be removed when new growth appears. Three stems in a 4-inch pot will make a nice full starter plant, but just one stem is all that is needed to get someone started growing. Once the roots are established you can begin using water with fertilizer, but fertilizer should not be introduced until rooting is well underway.

Pests and problems do occur, but these plants are highly resistant to them. The most frequent issues are root rot and fungus from over-watering and poor drainage. Unless that is caught early, it is usually easier to combat by just starting new plants.

Spider mites, scale, mealy bug, aphids and fungus gnats can try to take up residence too. An occasional light shower will help keep some of these at bay, as well as keeping the leaves dust free. To combat any that should pop up, try some insecticidal soap spray or for more difficult infestations a systemic insecticidal. I prefer the systemics because I never seem to be able to get the sprays in all the nooks and crannies where the bugs often hide.

Reading all this may sound daunting, but these plants are really easy peasy in general. They are good for the beginner, as well as the gardener who may be less than attentive on occasion. They are very forgiving in general, and tolerate some degree of deviation from perfection. While perfect growing conditions can produce beautiful, lush, bloom-filled wonders, even less than perfect conditions seem to produce delightful shows for your gardening pleasure. It’s an experience well worth a try.

 (Socko has been a Penn State Extension Master Gardener of Columbia County since 2008 and president and a founding member of the Petals and Pods Garden Club since 2006. She is also the former horticulture chairperson for the District V board of the Garden Club Federation of Pennsylvania, a former member of the RCV Flower Club and the administrator for the Fairy Garden Queen and Petals and Pods Garden Club Facebook pages. She is a lecturer on various gardening topics and has been a fruit, vegetable and flower gardener since age 5.)