What would the holidays be without the beautiful holiday plants? One of the most popular is the holiday cactus, which can refer to Thanksgiving or Christmas or Easter cactus. For generations, the Christmas cactus has been a favorite houseplant. With proper care they can be passed down from generation to generation because they’re long-lived, rather easy plants to grow. Many people have holiday cacti that have been in their family for years. Holiday cacti are actually quite easy to care for once you understand the basics.
Watering: Watering is probably the most important factor in caring for your Christmas cactus. About 60 percent of all indoor plants die because of over watering. Be sure to water thoroughly, but let the plant dry slightly between waterings. The leaves will wrinkle and the plants will drop flower buds if the soil is dry and they lack water.
Light: Your cactus should be kept in a well-lit location away from drafts from heat vents and fireplaces. They like bright, indirect light. Too much light can cause the flower color to fade. Too much heat can cause the flower buds to drop.
Fertilizer: Cacti need fertilizer, but in small amounts. Your cactus does not particularly need to be fertilized while in bloom. From spring to fall it can be fertilized every two to three months with a low nitrogen fertilizer such as 5-10-10. Excess nitrogen can cause succulent growth, leading to insect, disease and other problems. Time-release fertilizers need only be applied once in the spring.
Getting them to flower: Holiday cacti are short-day plants, meaning they bloom when nights are at least 15 hours long. They will also flower if exposed to prolonged cool temperatures between 50-55 degrees. No flowers will form at night temperatures above 70 degrees.
Pruning: Pruning your Christmas cactus after blooming will encourage the plant to branch out. The best time is when the new growth begins in March or early April. Remove a few sections of each stem by pinching them off with your fingers or cutting with a sharp knife. These sections can be rooted in moist vermiculite to propagate new plants.
After the holidays: After the holiday season, your Christmas cactus should be given about a 30-day rest. Place it in a cool room and provide limited water. Don’t worry if it loses a few leaves or joints and appears weak during this rest period.
Repotting: If your plant begins to dry out and wilt frequently, it may be time to repot. The best time to repot is in February, March or April. Choose a pot only slightly larger than the present one. Repotting into a container that is too large may lead to over-watering. Good drainage is essential in any growing mix for raising cacti, but must also have adequate moisture retention, aeration, and good nutrients. A good growing medium for cacti consists of equal parts of peat moss, garden soil and sharp (builders) sand. Equal parts of sand and a good houseplant growing mix will also do. Several brands of potting soil specifically for growing cactus are commercially available.
Your cactus in the spring: In spring your Christmas cactus can be placed in a shady or semi-shady location in the garden. When it’s time to bring it back inside in the fall, slowly adjust the number of hours it spends inside each day.
The Purdue University Cooperative Extension Service can be reached at (260) 499-6334 in LaGrange County.