Plant actually
a tropical

December 10, 2009

by Jane Stephens,
Victoria County
Master Gardener

edited by Charla Borchers Leon,
Victoria County
Master Gardener
The leaves of the Christmas cactus have flattened, segmented joints that are fragile and break apart easily. The flower buds and blooms also detach easily. Be careful to allow adequate space for the lengthy leaves to prevent their breakage as well as loss of color during the holiday season.
My mother always insisted I was the only child in the history of the world who did not have a favorite color. The choice was simply too overwhelming. In order that I might have an answer to this all-encompassing question that small humans seem to think so important as they start first grade, my wise, witty and wonderful mother suggested a simple answer: plaid.

This answer, with a bit of tweaking, would be the perfect response should you ask a Master Gardener to name his or her favorite plant. And yet, whenever we do an article, it is often thought it is obvious that the subject plant is the writer's favorite. So, just for today, my favorite plant is the Christmas cactus.

History Of the Christmas Cactus

This beautiful little plant is native to Brazil. It lived in the Orgon Mountains just north of Rio de Janeiro in the southeastern part of the country, where the temperature is a constant 60 to 70 degrees.

It grew wild nestled among the roots and cavities of the large trees where the soil was all naturally composted matter. It was named the Christmas cactus (Schlumbergera bridgesi) because it bloomed in December and the leaves resemble the cactus.

More generically referred to as the holiday cactus, Christmas cactus is closely related to Easter cactus (Schlumbergera gaertneri) and Thanksgiving cactus (Schlumbergera truncatus). They all have fleshy, flattened, segmented joints and showy flowers ranging in color from white through pink, red and purple.
Buds of the Christmas cactus set when the length of the daylight hours in nature are approximately equal to the hours of darkness. Showy flowers appear in five different colored varieties with blooms for six to eight weeks once the buds are open.
The Christmas cactus - not a cactus at all - has its name due to its leaves resembling a cactus with blooms in December. It has been bred to have orange, red, magenta, lavender and white blooms.
The Christmas cactus - which is not a cactus at all, but a tropical - was brought to the United States in the early 1800s. The plant was bred to include five colors: orange, red, magenta, lavender and white. It is said by some to now be second only to the poinsettia as the most popular Christmas plant.

Light Conditions For it

This spunky little plant is not just for Christmas. It will be happy in your home during the cold weather and will grace your patio during the warm months.

Inside or out, it wants bright, but always, indirect sunlight. Long-term direct sunlight can burn the leaves and stunt growth. This is one of the plants that is called thermo-photoperiodic. This is a big name that means the buds set when the length of the daylight hours are about equal to the hours of darkness. This is also a fun word to drop into conversation.

Remember, this plant always wants its light hours and dark hours. It will not like living in an area of your home where lights are left on all night. In the summer, be aware that also includes street lights or night security lights. This wee South American diva needs its beauty sleep.

Care For It

No matter how often we call this plant a cactus, remember this tropical needs to be watered like the non-cactus it is. It can never be allowed to be completely dry, but over-watering is its enemy. Water only when the top inch or so of the soil is dry to the touch. Then water thoroughly, but slowly and use warm water. Too little water and the leaves will droop; too much water and white rot will appear on the leaves.

The Christmas cactus likes humidity. It reminds it of its home in the tropics. A glass or vase of water placed near the plant for humid conditions will suffice. Also, using a pot saucer filled with gravel and then filled about halfway to the top with water will keep your plant happy.

To feed your cactus, use a blooming houseplant fertilizer. Feeding your cactus every few months will keep it healthy. Most growers stop all feeding the first days of November, or one month before the buds appear.

The joints of the plant are fragile and can break apart if the plant is stressed. Similarly, the flower buds' joints are easy to detach. Use care in moving the plant around if in full bloom so as not to lose the buds or open blooms.

Long Life Span

The Christmas cactus is one of the longest-living plants. It will live for 20 or more years with proper care. Some were passed down from one generation to another. It is also one of the easiest of all plants to propagate. Break off one segment, dip it into some root activator and then into the pot. The potting soil you use should be at least half peat for best results. With one plant you can assure new plants for years to come.

A Christmas Gift

The Christmas cactus is such a nice gift. You can find it most anywhere that sells plants. Most of them are already dressed in colorful holiday finery of paper or foil. They come in a variety of sizes, colors and prices. Whether you buy early or at the last minute you will still have the same choices.

In fact, the cooler the weather the more buds that will open and the prettier the plant. The effects of our recent bursts of cold temperatures will result in very colorful gifts this holiday season with the plant in bloom for the next six to eight weeks.

When you give one of these little beauties and there are no instructions, just tell the recipient how easy it is to care for. Just remember where and how it grew in the wild - the tropics - and do not let it freeze. It grew under trees, so do not put in direct sunlight. It grew among the roots and in the cavities of the trees, so keep it in small pots. It had lots of humidity, so it loves Texas.

All in all, it is a very plaid plant.

Favorite holiday house plant

Decorative with showy blooms

Available in 5 colors: orange, red, magenta, lavender and white

May live 20 years or more

Prefers bright but indirect light

Easy to propagate

Ideal as a holiday gift
The Gardeners' Dirt is written by members of the Victoria County Master Gardener Association, an educational outreach of Texas AgriLife Extension - Victoria County. Mail your questions in care of the Advocate, P.O. Box 1518, Victoria, TX 77901; or, or comment on this column at