Houseplants tend to find me … I’ve rarely purchased an indoor plant at a store. My next few posts will be focused on my “foundlings”. All are relatively easy care plants I’ve inherited one way or another and nursed back to health …
First up … let me tell you how we obtained our holiday cactus named “Prickly”…
One Saturday morning about six or seven years ago, I attended my weekly yoga class. After the workout, one of the class regulars approached me and handed me a small box with a rather forlorn looking “Christmas” cactus inside.
She asked me to take the cactus home and care for it, indicating she’d surely kill it … as she apparently had poor luck with many plants in the past. I offered to give her care tips and stressed most houseplants meet their demise by folks killing them with kindness and over-watering the heck out of them …
She declined the offer, saying she knew the cactus was in good hands. That’s how “Prickly” (aptly named by my husband) joined our family of plants. Doesn’t everyone name their houseplants?? ; )
Immediately upon arriving home, I removed the decorative foil covering the young cactus’s plastic pot. I understand some people like the festive foil for a pop of color during the holidays … but ALWAYS punch a hole in the covering so water can drain out and place a saucer underneath the plant.
After a few weeks, I repotted Prickly into a slightly bigger ceramic container (with drainage holes) and a cute chalkboard label on the front where I promptly wrote his name. He happily took to his new home and moniker and began to thrive!
Did you know? There are several types of holiday cacti: Easter, Thanksgiving, and Christmas. They typically bloom closest to the holiday that they’re named after. For simplicity’s sake, I’ll refer to all three as “holiday cacti” in the Planting and Care sections of this page below.
To tell the three cacti apart, pay attention to their leaf shapes and flowers:
• Christmas cacti (Schlumbergera bridgesii) have flattened leaves with rounded teeth on the margins of the leaves.
• Thanksgiving cacti (Schlumbergera truncata) have flattened leaves with pointed teeth. Also referred to as a “Crab Claw Cactus”.
• Easter cacti (Hatiora gaertneri) also have flattened leaves with rounded teeth, but their flowers are broader and almost daisy-like, whereas the flowers of the other cacti are more tube-shaped.
To confuse matters further, most of the Christmas cacti sold are actually Thanksgiving cactus. If you find your Christmas cactus blooming near Thanksgiving, guess what?
Also, look at the pollen-bearing anthers – Thanksgiving cactus anthers are yellow, while Christmas cactus anthers are pink to purplish-brown.
The first year we had Prickly he started forming buds (they remind me of pinkish cooked shrimp) in late September and bloomed during Thanksgiving week. My initial reaction was that he was an eager beaver – overachiever … blooming well before Christmas. Figuring he was just content with his new location, lighting requirements, and pot … he just decided to surprise us and bloom early.
Then I started doing some research to see if this behavior was normal. That’s when I discovered there are actually three different types of holiday cacti. Sure enough, Prickly was a Thanksgiving cactus and, alas, … not a Christmas cactus.
Unfortunately, the confusion between these holiday succulents is perpetuated by the fact that they’re often mislabeled in garden centers. Plus since they both bloom in late fall or early winter … it further adds to the confusion. But it’s it’s nice to know which one you truly have.
• Christmas cacti grow well in most container soils, as long as it drains well. Make sure that your pots have drainage holes!
• Plants should be kept in bright, indirect light. Ours are close to northwest facing windows.
• A daytime temperature of no more than 70°F and an evening temperature of 60-65°F is preferred for optimal growth.
• In the summer, Christmas cacti can be placed in a shady spot in the garden or in an unheated porch until temperatures get below 50°F (we keep ours indoors year round)
• As soon as the top inch of soil in the container feels dry to the touch, lightly soak the soil until water runs through the pot’s drainage holes; discard water in the tray so the plant doesn’t sit in water. It’s especially important to water well while the plant is flowering. Always remember most plants do not like to swim! I water approximately once a week.
• From spring through early fall, feed every 2 weeks or so with a balanced houseplant fertilizer. During the fall and winter, feed the cactus sparingly. I only feed every 8 – 10 weeks during the cold weather months.
• Prune plants in June to encourage branching and more flowers. Simply cut off a few sections of each stem. If you wish, place the cut pieces in moist vermiculite to make more plants—they root easily! Prickly has an offspring named … drum roll please … why Prickly Jr. naturally ; )
• If your cactus is not blooming, it may be due to the amount of daylight they’re getting or the temperature.
• If the cacti sheds its buds one winter, don’t worry: it should bloom the following year.
The best time to pinch, prune or shape a Thanksgiving/Christmas cactus is when the new growth begins in March or early April and the best time for repotting a cactus is in February, March or April. However, these plants will flower best when they are kept in a container where it’s a little pot-bound.
Pests & Diseases
Blossom drop: If your Christmas cactus is exposed to any type of stress, the plant will likely drop its blossoms. This could be related to the amount of light, or a sudden change in temperature, as discussed in above plant care section. Also, ensure your soil doesn’t get too dry while buds are forming. Don’t move the cacti when buds are forming. They like to stay put during this phase.
Mealy bugs and Root rot: The plant may be susceptible to mealy bugs and, if over-watered, root rot. If you have problems, cut out the infected areas and repot the succulent in clean soil.
Holiday Cacti make wonderful houseplants! They are easy care and very rewarding. We always take delight when Prickly and Prickly Jr. bloom in late November … the peachy-salmon blooms are stunning to behold!
Interested in houseplants? Make sure to explore my post on Indoor Fruit Trees … also very satisfying to grow inside and so enjoyable to partake of their homegrown, tasty, organic fruit!