Christmas cactus are popping up everywhere. They’re lovely living gifts that enliven holiday décor and add beauty year-round. If you like floral irony, this is your plant. Even though they are fleshy succulents, they originated not in arid regions but in the rainforests of Brazil where they drape themselves over tree branches as epiphytes.
As with many tropical plants, Christmas cactus delivers a double dose of drama. The first is the strong architectural form of arching stems made up of a series of scalloped pads. But it’s their cascading flowers in pink, salmon, red, or white that are the real showstoppers. Stacked layers of swept-back petals with prominent stamens, they are very oh-la-la. They also have a long bloom time, flowering from two weeks to two months.
Also long is their lifespan. They can live for decades, often becoming family heirlooms. I once received cuttings from a plant started by a – ahem – mature friends’ grandfather. This caused a commotion at airport security. What IS that thing on the x-ray? And yes, the kindly man let me keep my cuttings once I showed them to him and shared their story.
Care is fairly basic. They like bright indirect light, not full sun. Keep the soil slightly moist. Mist regularly or put the pot on a dish of moist gravel to boost humidity.
Christmas cacti need cooler temps and less water to nudge them to bloom again. They need a chill to give you a thrill.
Master Gardener friends report that the natural drop in temperature and day length in fall is enough to encourage buds indoors. Others let their cactus summer outside in light shade, keeping them out until fall temperatures drop to 50 to 55 degrees. Regardless of how you stimulate flowering, resume regular care when buds form. After your cactus finishes blooming, give it a cooler rest period and less water for two months.
And yes, Christmas cactus has many cousins including Thanksgiving cactus and Easter cactus, all named for the times they bloom. Mine never consulted calendars and bloomed as they liked.
How can you tell which cactus you have? Easter and Thanksgiving cactus have pointed edges on their leaves while Christmas cactus leaves have more rounded scalloped edges.
Thankfully, Christmas cacti are a snap to propagate, so they are easy to share. Just break off a stem at a joint, slip into well-drained soil and keep the soil moist. It will root in a few weeks.
I love a good story, and these plants have several. My favorite is a Brazilian legend that tells of a poor boy in the jungle who prays repeatedly for a sign of Christmas. One day he awakes surrounded by colorful flowers on the tips of cactus. And so the cactus became a symbol of answered prayers.
So Christmas cacti are a symbol of hope. With their long lives, colorful blooms, ease of care, and sharing, they make wonderful gifts for friends, family, and your very own green thumb.
Annette Cormany, horticulture educator, University of Maryland Extension – Washington County