I had a girlfriend over the other day for brunch shortly after I had relocated my house plants from the front porch to other places in my living room and dining room. By the way, it’s incredible to me that all these plants cohabitated nicely with me inside all fall and winter only to be relocated to the front porch for the spring and summer, and now that they are back in the house I am not sure where to put them! Obviously, I am not consistent with where my plants reside when I bring them back in. Anyway, my girlfriend was particularly amazed at how large my one cactus is. I refer to this particular plant as Mama, as she has produced other plants. I have had a limb (large segment) or two “fall off” over the many decades that I have had this plant, and I have planted them to have them live and thrive. These babies are the ones I give as house warming plants! I told her that I have had this plant for at least three decades! Okay, maybe closer to four…
So, she asked me if it was a Christmas cactus, and I shook my head in a way that said I wasn’t sure. She looked at me with a puzzled expression, and I had to confess that I think I psychologically damaged this particular cactus because it seems to bloom when it wants to. I’ve had it bloom in October and hoped and prayed that it would stay pretty through Thanksgiving. I’ve had it bloom in March, and again I hoped that it would remain pretty for Easter. It will bloom in the spring and in the fall, and I believe it had bloomed around Christmas time in its infancy.
So, I decided that I had voluntarily been living with this plant for a long time (far longer than my ex-husband and I cohabitated), and I needed to educate myself on this beautiful, hearty and very forgiving plant.
Here’s what I learned: There are actually three different holiday cactuses. Easter (Rhipsalidopsis gaertneri), Thanksgiving (Schlumbergera truncata) and Christmas (Schlumbergera bridgesii).
The Easter cactus is native to the natural forests of Brazil. They grow in rocks and trees and prefer a humid environment. This plant blooms in April and May under the right conditions. The Easter cactuses prefer indirect sunlight and average temperatures between 75 to 80 degrees, spring, summer and fall. They like a cooler, humid winter, between 45 to 65 degrees. This cactus is not considered a tropical plant and needs more care than its cousins. You can easily identify an Easter Cacti by the shape of its leaves; the edges of their leaves are more rounded, and the rather flat plateau of the tip has filament-like protrusions that resemble small root tufts. See diagram.
The Thanksgiving and Christmas Cacti are also native to Brazil. However, these are found in the rainforests. They, too, like to take root amongst the rocks and trees and enjoy a humid, warm summer and a cooler, dryer winter. They bloom according to their holiday: Thanksgiving around November and December and Christmas in December and January. Both prefer full, direct sunlight, average temperatures of between 55 to 65 degrees, are considered tropical plants and are easier to maintain. You can identify these also by the shape of their leaves; the Thanksgiving cactus leaves can appear barbed around the edges while the Christmas cactus is not barbed but not rounded either. See diagram.
Usually, you will notice similarities in their flowers. The blooms are tube-shaped and resemble a starburst or a double starburst that come in a variety of reds, fuchsias, purples, pinks and whites. The flower can be an inch or two long. The bigger the plant, the more blooms it will produce. They are a beautiful plant.
All three varieties are referred to as short-day plants. For the plant to produce the buds, it needs 12 to 24 hours of darkness a day. The Easter cactus needs about 8 to 12 weeks of short days to force buds. If you want your Easter cactus to bloom for Easter, count backward on the calendar. The plant will need to hibernate in a cool, dark place about ten weeks before Easter. The Thanksgiving and Christmas cactuses only need about six weeks of sleep in a cool, dark place to force blooms. Again, count backward on your calendar for the approximate date. Water them once a month, just to keep the top inch layer of the soil damp, not soaked as it can develop root rot. Most cactus root systems reach the top layers of the soil because, in times of drought, the plant can still be hydrated by water molecules in the air. Large plants, such as mine, have a broader base root to support the weight of the plant above ground. Remember, these plants grow in rugged environments and the crook of tree limbs. The filament root structure attaches to the bark, much like an ivy plant will, when you see them growing up trees or the sides of house or barns.
When you see your plant producing buds, move it to a slightly sunnier, warmer area where you can watch it come into full bloom and enjoy it. Once the plant has completed its bloom cycle, it will rest again for about a month. And I found out during the research for this article that the plant can bloom again! So If I want it to bloom in the spring, I will follow the same protocol as before.
These plants are easy to propagate. Each leaf segment has the potential to sprout filament roots and become a plant. If they drop off the main plant, they can reroot themselves in the soil creating new plants. You can easily cut four segments back to propagate new plants. When cut, lay them on a paper towel and let them rest two to four days in a cool place and not in direct sunlight before planting. Trimming your plant in this way will also keep the growth of your plant in check.
There are soil mixes that you can purchase that are ideal for succulents. Repot and fertilize your plants in the spring after their blooming season. The best way to repot a cactus is by letting the soil dry completely. Gently but firmly support the base of the plant while turning it over into the palm of your dominant hand. Gently loosen the dry soil around the bottom of the root filaments before gently lowering into a new, larger container, partially filled with fresh potting soil. Fill around the roots and up to the base of the plant. It’s alright to water more frequently during the summer months, but when you bring them inside, once a month should do.
The Penn State Extension and Master Gardeners of Greene County are available to help with your gardening questions at 724-627-3745.