Holiday Cactus

By Richard Flowers, ACCNP-Green Thumb Nursery-Ventura

Ever wonder why people choose a cactus as a holiday plant? Most people don’t associate it with the holiday season but these beauties have proved them wrong. Low and behold, it has become a tradition for people young and old to grow this tropical treasure for the holidays. It’s a marriage of two opposite sides of the spectrum, a cactus and something that is tropical, amazing isn’t? I would like you to meet Christmas (Holiday) Cactus. Lets dive in and found out what these plants are all about. It is not like your typical cactus at all, it does not bite, it doesn’t have sharp spines or thorns and it is not form the desert. Their arching/drooping leaves are succulent and segmented often appear as if there is one leaf then a notch then another leaf. At the tips of these leaves arises an open, trumpet or tubular shaped, narrow but many petaled flowers that happen to arrive in late winter. These exotic, attractive, and flamboyant flowers look something like an orchid, fuchsia or flames, or a bird fluttering its wings depending on how your imagination is. The flowers look almost fake and appear to have layers of waxy petals. Before the flowers open to show their glory, colorful buds form at the tips of the leaves that look like buttons but when the timing is right these buds open up and the delicate treasure brightens your day.

Every year during this time an anomaly happens and it is something you can’t avoid, people have developed a tradition by adding these extraordinary and warm colored plants that add pizzazz and holiday cheer to those who need it. Who would of known that a cactus is native to the tropical jungle mountains of Coastal S.E. Brazil near the Atlantic Ocean where they naturally grow on trees and bloom April – May, but they are forced to to bloom during the holidays in our neck of the woods. These  epiphytes live in pockets of leaf debris where there is a split in the branches kind of the way some orchids grow. In fact you can grow them in much of the same manner as some orchids.

The climate is refreshing, humid, and they never experience extreme heat nor do they experience frosts. The light is filtered, dappling through the canopy of the dense overgrowth. The water runs off rapidly and the plants are never waterlogged. This is pretty much the opposite of what people envision a cactus. Though, they may be called a cactus and unlike most cactus that deserve low humidity and little water, however these exotic treasures prefer regular watering and humidity. Holiday Cactus can live between 25-60 years and can reach 3 feet across producing 100s of glorious blooms. These long-lived plants can be passed down from generation to generation or shared with friends from a simple stem cutting rooted in a bit of damp potting soil.

During the shortest days of the year, when you walk into your favorite Green Thumb Nursery you will see hundreds of these outstanding holiday Cactus that arrived from our growers in both bud and bloom. These exotic masterpieces are only available for a short while, so now is the time to enjoy these colorful, festive, and tropical looking flowers that bloom right around the holidays. You will be delighted to see the array of colors ranging from red, pink or white flowers that bloom at the ends of branches. Each flower, which is typically about three inches long, lasts for several days, though the entire flowering period typically spans about two weeks and collectively they can bloom almost into January bringing holiday cheer and beauty.

Holiday Cactus can be grown inside in a brightly lit location or they can also be grown in filtered shade outdoors. Imagine having an exquisite hanging basket prominently showcased in a covered patio boasting reddish-orange elongated flowers that are 2 inches across and have 12 to 15 pointed petals. Holiday Cactus also makes a festive and wonderful holiday center pieces and a thoughtful gift for plant lovers. Just having one or maybe more of these beautiful plants on a shelf will surely put a smile on your face.

Holiday Cactus is a generalized term for two similar but different plants that happen to bloom during the November- December and sometimes into January if you are lucky. Thanksgiving Cactus is sometimes called Crab Cactus, has pointed leaves, the flowers are arching or dropping in nature, and the pollen is yellow. Crab Cactus got its common name because the stems look as if they are clawed like a crab. Christmas Cactus on the other hand, have more of a rounded leaf, blooms later, the flowers are more upright, and the blossoms are more pink. They both have the same genus- Schlumbergera (Skulm-ber-ger- a), Sometimes they are called Zygocactus but a name change occurred in 1953 from Zygocactus to Schlumbergera., however you can still see the name Zygocactus still used. There are six species in the genus Schlumbergera, meaning they are closely related and there are many hybrids of each and some even hybridizes between each other. The genus Schlumbergera was named after a French plant collector Fredric Schlumberger who collected exotic plants in the 1800s and the first plants were discovered by an English botanist and explorer Allan Cunningham and introduced them to Kew Gardens in England in the Eastern Hemisphere. In recent years, all sorts of new varieties have been produced with characteristics that blur the differences between the species. These are what you’re more likely to find for sale nowadays, instead of the original species-type plants. Chances are it’s a major mishmash between Christmas and Thanksgiving Cactus, and maybe a few other related species. Basically, the cactus that blooms earlier is Thanksgiving Cactus and the one that blooms later is Christmas Cactus.

In the Eastern Hemisphere, Holiday Cactus bloom between November and January and that is where the common name- Holiday Cactus, Christmas Cactus, and Thanksgiving Cactus originated form. In our area of the world (Western Hemisphere) these plants do not show there glory by themselves at this time of year. They need a little help. The secret behind the success is that the growers have forced them to do so.

To ensure good blossom set for November/ December be sure the temperature is between 55- 60 degrees f. and 12 – 14 hours of darkness during September/October for the November blooms and October/ November for the December blooms. Many growers have automated systems that control the temperature, water, and light. For the ordinary home owner try putting the plants in the garage, in a closet, or under the house. These locations or other similar areas are usually cooler and darker. Don’t forget to move your plants to a sunnier area during the day for 8- 10 hours then move them back. In other words they require short days and long nights and this cycle should be repeated for 6-8 weeks. It usually takes up to 12 weeks (or less) for blooms to appear. Once you see flower buds set the plant near a bright window. When flowering is over, set the cactus outdoors if you live in a frost-free climate. In cold climates, keep it indoors until weather warms in late spring. Repeat the cycle as described above to start initiating next years bloom. It is also imperative to reduce watering in mid- October, only water when the soil feels dry about an inch below the surface. Do not fertilize while forcing.

Holiday Cactus require regular watering. It is best to let the soil become just dry in-between waterings, then water thoroughly each time. Don’t let the soil become too dry or else the flowers will start to drop, overwatering can cause bud drop also. Flower drop may also occur due to a lack of humidity or insufficient light. If this starts happening, water the plant less and add some fertilizer to the pot. When fertilizing, any all-purpose, balanced houseplant water soluble or liquid fertilizer can be used. Growers recommend 10-10-10 or 20-20-20 formulations, diluted with twice as much water as recommended on the package to provide a half-strength solution. Holiday Cactus doesn’t need fertilizer while it is blooming. From April to October, fertilize every two to four weeks as new leaf growth begins. These plants oftentimes need a fertilizer supplement, mainly magnesium. I suggest to mix 1 teaspoon Epsom Salts (Magnesium Sulfate) per gallon of water and apply it every other watering but not at the same time as regular fertilizing. Stop any fertilizing in late September or early October to encourage flower bud production.

They are happiest with filtered light outdoors or indoors with bright indirect light which is usually a north or east facing window. If your Holiday Cactus is in a south or west-facing window be sure to diffuse the light with curtains or blinds. Just make sure to avoid direct sunlight, drafts, heat vents, fireplaces or other sources of hot air which can burn the leaves. It is best to keep in a normal house temperature range, about 65 to 75°F. If your home is particularly dry, place a shallow bowl of water underneath the plant to create a humidity tray to help humidify the air, ideally 50 to 60% humidity is the ultimate goal. The soil needs to be porous, light weight, and well draining with leaf mold, I recommend using Orchid Mix. Make sure the pot that it is in has adequate drainage holes underneath and each time you irrigate the water should come out of the bottom. A soil that is water logged or drains poorly will sadden the plant.

I encourage you to stop by your favorite Green Thumb Nursery to savor the the wide selection of Holiday Cactus. Happy Holidays!

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