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True Christmas Cactus

True Christmas Cactus


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Succulentopedia

Schlumbergera x buckleyi (True Christmas Cactus)

Schlumbergera x buckleyi (True Christmas Cactus) is a cactus with fleshy stems divided into flattened leaf-like segments with scalloped…


Christmas Cacti Care

There are several plant species that are called Christmas cacti, but the true Christmas cactus is the plant discussed below, Schlumbergera x buckleyi, a hybrid of some very similar holiday cacti, and is a very common plant in cultivation. These are relatively easy plants to take care of, safe (no spines or toxins) and can live a long time (generations). The following is a brief discussion of these plants and their year round care.

Natural History:

The true scientific name for this plant is a bit unclear. In PlantFiles, these are entered under both Schlumbergera truncata as well as Schlumbergera x buckleyi. It appears that the ‘true’ Christmas cacti are indeed hybrids of S. buckleyi and possibly S. truncata. Some call this plant a Zygocactus species, but that is definitely a synonym genus, not a currently accepted one for this species. Closely related plants include the Thanksgiving Cactus (again, due to the timing of the plant’s natural affinity to bloom around Thanksgiving) or Crab Cactus, (due to the overall shape of the plant) and Easter cacti. These plants are nearly identical to Christmas cacti but tend to either have sharper node tips, or much blunter node tips and bloom at different times of the year.

flowers coming from tips of branches

Schlumbergeras are epiphytes in nature (grow on other plants or non-soil surfaces), from the high elevation jungles of Brazil. Their natural environment is a relatively cool even temperature, high humidity, bright light with little direct sunlight, and frequent rain. Considering their tropical source and epiphytic nature, however, they do amazingly well as potted plants in normal cactus soil and in a warm temperate climate, or indoors.

A particularly large and old plant- these do well as hanging plants thanks to their epiphytic nature (photo by trilian15)

Though these are indeed true cacti, they do not look like the cacti most are normally used to seeing. These plants are fleshy, green, segmented plants that, over time, develop woody, thick stems. Thankfully they are basically spineless (aka 'user-friendly'). They also have no leaves, though some sources refer to the segments as cladophylls, or a form of leaf. However, the segments are usually called cladodes and are similar in general form to those that make up Opuntia cacti. Flowers develop in fall from the tips of the last cladode of each segmented arm.

old plant with woody stem (photo by pdb George4tax)

Not surprisingly, Christmas cacti require different care than do most cacti. Though from the tropics, they live in a relatively cool environment and therefore do NOT like high heat like most cacti do. Basically all cacti are summer growers and spend winter basically comatose or at least very inactive in terms of growing or flowering. And this is still true of Christmas cacti, despite their blooming in winter. They do very little growing in winter, but it is the best time of year to enjoy Christmas cacti, when the days are shortening and the temps cooling down. They don’t like temps much over 80F anyway. On the other hand they cannot tolerate freezes either, and prefer temps above 55F (though outdoor plants seem to cope with temps into the low 30s well- just not very happy about them). So if keeping them outdoors and cold weather is coming, it’s time to bring them in.

photo by Clare_CA

note the color change of leaves in winter, due to cold on this outdoor plant

And unlike most cacti, Schlumbergeras do not like full sun, particularly when it’s hot. But they do like bright light and grow and flower best if the light is very bright. Fortunately they do tolerate low light situations for short periods of time, and that is why they do so well as indoor plants. A few days in the middle of the table far from windows will not do them much harm… but they do need to be returned to an area of bright light soon after, or blooming might cease early. For those in cold climates, these cacti do best if kept outdoors under a shady tree or porch when it’s warm and moved back indoors near a bright window as it gets colder. In warmer climates these can be kept outdoors year round, but still don’t try to grow them in the garden like one would a regular cactus. I have tried this over and over unsuccessfully, though I can sometimes get them to grow in raised beds on the north side of a house if watered well all year round. Freezes will damage them, but it takes a pretty severe freeze in southern California to kill one.

These are sale plants in a nursery in low light. There were probably greenhouse plants until just recently. Note the buds on the plant in second photo. Perhaps this one will still be blooming around Christmas, but as this is November, it may not be. Best to get a brand new plant a week before Christmas if you want to be blooming then.

They still are cacti, though, and need to be planted in well draining soil. Remember that in the wild they basically live in soilless situations, so water needs to drain past the roots easily, or they could rot. I have personally found that they do not rot all that easily, though, and some carelessness about watering is tolerated. But certainly not recommended! Underwatering will kill a Christmas Cactus, too, but a lot more slowly. There is plenty of time to intervene should the cladodes appear flattened and wrinkled. Schlumbergeras are from high rainfall and high humidity environments and do appreciate being watered regularly. These plants tend to do well in soils with a good portion of peat moss, something that, if it dries out, will be hard to get wet again. So be careful not to let soils get too dry if using peat moss. Use clay pots if growing these in humid climates, and plastic pots if growing in arid climates. Leach the soil 2-3x a year of accumulated salts.

Once the days shorten (usually in October), back off on watering. Some recommend NO water the entire month of October, and then resume again in November. Then it is recommended to withhold water again once blooming is over for a bit longer than a month this time. If signs of new growth appear, it’s time to start watering again. This is also a good time to repot the plant and put it in some new, clean, well draining soil. Repotting is recommended every few years.

First photo is of my outdoor plant on Thanksgiving, and then a week later.

Fertilization should be with half strength water soluble formulas and only in warmer weather (not during or after flowering, until new growth is seen and time for repotting). If using a granular fertilizer, it is best to be stingy- these plants do tolerate fertilizers better than do most cacti, but still, be careful. 10-10-10 is the best ratio to use.

For plants that are not flowering as expected, be sure the soil is not too dry, or plants are not next to a cold or hot source (air conditioner, heater etc.). If there is some night light on the plant, it might retard it from blooming well. Put these plants in a totally dark room for a minimum of 13 hours a night. This will also help these plants bloom when wanted, and not too early (like around Thanksgiving which is probably more ‘normal’ for most plants). These plants may need longer light to simulate early fall, rather than late fall, to keep them from blooming too early. Then do the total darkness thing about 4-6 weeks before the time blooming is desired, every night until buds form and the plants can be returned to their location near the window or table. And be sure the daytime temps are in the 60s (hot houses will prevent these from blooming) and night temps are not much below 50F. Sometimes a little liquid fertilizer with extra potassium can help stimulate blooming. Once flowering starts, it is recommended not to move these plants too much, in terms of overall heat and light, or they may abruptly stop blooming and drop all their buds.

My plant right from the seller in photo on left above, where it has been kept indoors and happy, to outdoor life on the right- note all the blooms fell off and hardly any flowering, despite only being a week later- went into shock from the change of environment

Problem insects include fungus gnats, mealy bug and scale. The first one can often be controlled by simple insecticidal soap and trying not to keep the soils too wet. The other two usually need systemic insecticides, particularly scale, and can really damage a Christmas Cactus in a hurry. Plants kept in areas where there is good air circulation (such as hanging outdoors under a tree) usually have less problems with insects.

Pruning of plants once the flowering season is over is a good way to make the plants bushier or fuller. This also provides one with a number of cuttings for making more plants.

These are pretty easy plants to propagate, by just taking cuttings of 1-4 cladodes long and letting them sit in a cool dry place for 2-3 days, then planting them in a pumice or well draining soil/germinating mix until new growth is seen. Water only sparingly at first, but once roots form or new growth is seen, water regularly. It is best to do this when it’s warm, but possible to do just about any time of year.

These plants come in a variety of colors now as hybridization practices become more refined. Photos from left to right: mine, pdb_vince, jnana and Grasmussen

These are long lived plants and if taken well care of, repotted regularly and keep from rotting or drying out too much, they can become fairly large, woody-based plants and become family heirlooms for generations.

The following link is to a site which is the best I have seen for explaining the differences between Christmas Cacti, Thanksgiving Cacti and Easter Cacti:

(Editor's Note: This article was originally published on December 23, 2007. Your comments are welcome, but please be aware that authors of previously published articles may not be able to promptly respond to new questions or comments.)


Watering

As I said earlier, the holiday cactus is more like a tropical plant than a desert-dwelling cactus. Give them a good soaking when you water the plant and let them dry out between waterings.

These guys don’t like wet feet at all and prone to root rot, so it’s essential that their roots don’t sit in water. If your pot sits in a saucer, be sure to dump any excess water out.

Christmas, Thanksgiving, and Easter cacti prefer a humid environment. If you don’t live in this kind of climate, you can provide your cactus with the humidity it needs by placing the pot on a flat dish or saucer filled with pebbles and water. The water will evaporate and keep your plant happy. Just be sure water is below the stones and the pot isn’t sitting in water.

If your home is on the dry side, you can provide humidity for your plant with a dish of water and pebbles.

In their native habitat, these plants don’t grow in soil per se rather, they grow in spots where dirt and debris would collect. Think about the crook of a tree or a shallow indent in a rock where natural litter would accumulate. They prefer similar soil when potted. Choose a good cactus or succulent potting mix that drains well.

The holiday cacti prefer to be a little root bound, so let them get crowded in their pot. You really only need to repot them every few years. When you do replant them, choose a new container that’s only slightly bigger than the old one.


Is It Really A True Christmas Cactus?

Why is it flowering now & not at Christmas Time?

When the infamous Christmas Cactus blooms outside of our celebratory season, is it really a true Christmas Cactus?
There is only one True Christmas Cactus Schlumbergera bridgesii, (S. x buckleyi). A cross between S russelliana & S truncata.

Is it really a true Christmas Cactus?
Schlumbergera truncata, also known as the Thanksgiving cactus is very similar to our true Christmas Cactus & because of this similar appearance, Thanksgiving cactus are often sold as the true Schlumbergera bridgesii (S. x buckleyi), our True Christmas Cactus.

Upon close examination of the stem sections (joints), the direction of the flower blossoms as well as the overall size of a mature plant will help differentiate between the two genus of Schlumbergera.

Christmas Cactus vs Thanksgiving Cactus Comparison
Christmas Cactus Schlumbergeria bridgessii, (S. x buckleyi) 6″ mature height x 9″ wide
Flat joints up to 2″ long on branching stems. Joints mid green, un-toothed & with rounded indentations on the margins 2-3″ long flowers

Thanksgiving Cactus Schlumbergera truncata 6-12″ tall x 12-15″ wide. Branching, jointed stems, Light green, turning red. 2-3″ long flat joints with 2-4 well defined notches on each side. The upper notch more prominent than the lower

Schulmbergera truncata notched edges shown at top

Schulmbergera bridgesii rounded edges shown at bottom

S. truncata Thanksgiving cactus

grows 6-12″ tall x 12-15″ wide & has flat, 2-3″ long sections with 2-4 well defined notches on both sides that taper to a point

The upper most notches being longer than the lower.
Light green colored sections that turn red. Horizontal Flowers.

When you see a 6″ mature height x 9″ wide, 2″ long mid green sections with rounded edges rather than notches & with downward flower, you know you have found a True Christmas Cactus.

Both Schlumbergera’s have a similar blooming period although the Thanksgiving Cactus begins blooming a little earlier than the true Christmas Cactus.

Why is it flowering now & not at Christmas Time?
Many possible reasons why your Christmas Cactus is flowering not at Christmas time. Consider the usual variants media, moisture, fertilizer & location but most importantly for a Christmas Cactus is light & temperature.

S. bridgesii is often found flowering outside of Christmas time. After all it is only a small three day window. You can expect Schlumbergera bridgesii to flower in late Fall & or Winter.

There are Christmas & Thankgiving Cactus here that flower from November until long after Christmas time. How we have an ongoing performances from them is because there is more than one, creating better odds that one or more will flowering at Christmas Time.

If you want to see your True Christmas Cactus blooming within the three day Christmas Time window, have more than one. Have many. Grab yourself a few more & experiment. Schlumbergera is super easy to propagate. Fun to share different colors with friends too.
Learn how easy it is to propagate Schulmbergera here.

Out of eight or ten, one or more will surely be flowering at Christmas Time.

How to have your Christmas Cactus flowering at Christmas time
With so much varying information, it is best to just dive in & don’t fuss. Focusing on just one plant increases odds so start with six or more small plants. Learn everything you can about the care of the Schulmbergera. These plants prefer to be root bound. Transplant every three years or so. Thrive on neglect & dislike being moved.

There are different techniques said to force Christmas Cactus to be flowering at Christmas Time. None of which I have ever done & out of eight, S. truncata & S. bridgesii, there are those finished blooming & forming new buds, some in full bloom & those yet to flower. Four are of same young age & in 10″ pots, S. truncata is older & almost fully mature & three S. bridgesii in 5″ pots, one flowering, another just starting & one yet to.

Culture is nothing special but ours are placed in permanent (indoor) position in a sun room out of direct sunlight. The sun room gets piping hot in the summer time & very cool in the winter time. Theses plants seems to love the environment & react well. Basic requirements these plants get is plenty of water but allow to dry to touch between watering, well drained soil & other than that, neglect.
Our Schulmbergera don’t get deadheaded, put outside in shady, high humidity position in the summer or intentionally kept in 12 hours or more of PM darkness in cool area as been suggested. Meanwhile there is a Schulmbergera blooming in the house from November to January, sometimes longer. Months to bloom can vary dependent on climate

One fully mature S truncata that is placed outside in a cool position for the summer & brought back in before first frost. This plant has not flowered yet & no buds.
Transplanted a year or so ago. Perhaps it takes a while to spring back? Feeding schedule may be a bit early, therfore sending energy to foliage rather than buds?

How to tell if you really have a true Christmas Cactus or it’s parent S. truncata is by section (or joint) formation, mature height & width as well as flower direction. Since both S. bridgesii & S. truncata have a similar flowering season is why you may see it flowering now & not at Christmas time.


The Christmas cactus is a very popular houseplant—and for good reason! When they bloom, they produce colorful, tubular flowers in pink or lilac colors. Their beautiful flowers, long bloom time, and easy care requirements make them a wonderful plant. We’ll bet someone in your family has a Christmas cactus!

About Christmas Cacti

Unlike other cacti, the Christmas cactus (Schlumbergera x buckleyi) and its relatives don’t live in hot, arid environments such as deserts or plains. In fact, these epiphytic succulents are native to the tropical rainforests of southern Brazil, where they grow on tree branches and soak up the high humidity, dappled sunlight, and warm temperatures.

The bottom line: Don’t treat a Christmas cactus like it’s a run-of-the-mill cactus or succulent. They can’t take the same sort of sunny, dry conditions that other cacti can. It’s important to water these cacti more regularly than most succulents, but to also be cautious of keeping them too wet. (See detailed care instructions below.)

Thanksgiving, Easter, or Christmas Cactus?

There are three main types of “holiday” cacti out there: the Easter cactus (S. gaertneri), Thanksgiving cactus (S. truncata), and Christmas cactus (S. x buckleyi). Each holiday cactus typically blooms closest to the holiday that it’s named after. However, most of the “Christmas cacti” sold today are actually Thanksgiving cacti, which tend to bloom from November through February and therefore pass unnoticed as Christmas cacti. To learn more, see our article on the different types of holiday cacti and how to tell them apart.

Note: For simplicity’s sake, we refer to all three of these species as “Christmas cactus” on this page, since this is the most commonly used term and our care advice applies to all of them!

Planting

Potting Christmas Cacti

  • When selecting a pot for a Christmas cactus, be sure to choose one that has a drainage hole in the bottom. This helps to keep the soil from getting too wet.
  • Christmas cacti grow well in most potting mixes that are formulated for succulents. The important thing is that your potting soil drains well.

Where to Put a Christmas Cactus

  • Plants should be kept in bright, indirect light. An east-facing window or a bright bathroom is ideal. Too much direct sunlight can bleach the sensitive leaves.
  • A daytime temperature of 70°F (21°C) and an evening temperature of 60-65°F (15-18°C) is preferred.
  • Christmas cacti prefer a more humid environment, which makes a bright bathroom or kitchen a good spot to keep them.
  • 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 (10°C). Keep them out of direct outdoor sunlight.

How to Care for Christmas Cacti

  • Plan to water every 2-3 weeks, but only water when the top one third of soil feels dry to the touch. For example, if the plant is in 6 inches of soil, water when the top 2 inches feel dry. (Use your finger to check!)
    • When the soil is sufficiently dry, soak the soil until water runs through the pot’s drainage holes. Place a tray underneath the pot to catch the water. After 10-15 minutes, discard any excess water in the tray so that the pot doesn’t sit in water.
    • It’s especially important to water well while the plant is flowering.
  • From spring through early fall, feed every 2 weeks with a balanced houseplant fertilizer. During the fall and winter, feed the cactus monthly to encourage successful blooming.
  • Prune plants in late spring to encourage branching and more flowers. Simply cut off a few sections of each stem the plant will branch from the wound.
    • If you wish, place the cut pieces in a lightly moist potting soil—they root easily after a few weeks and make for excellent Christmas presents!

How to Get Your Christmas Cactus to Bloom

The blooms of Christmas cacti and its relatives are triggered by the cooler temperatures and longer nights of fall. The three main types of holiday cacti generally bloom according to this schedule:

  • Thanksgiving cacti are the earliest and longest bloomers, typically producing flowers from late fall through mid-winter.
  • Christmas cacti tend to bloom from early winter to mid-winter.
  • Easter cacti bloom from late winter to mid-spring.

If your cactus is not blooming, it may be receiving too much light or too-high temperatures. Here are some tips to encourage yours to produce flowers!

  • To trigger blooming, nights need to be at least 14 hours long and days between 8 to 10 hours for at least six weeks. If you have strong indoor lighting that’s on at night, you may need to cover your cactus or move it to an area that’s exposed to the natural light cycle.
  • Flower buds form best when the plant is kept in temperatures between 50 and 60°F (10 and 15°C).
    • You can kickstart the budding process by exposing the plant to temperatures of about 45°F (7°C) for several nights in a row.
  • Make sure that you are consistent with watering while the plant is in flower. If the plant dries out too much, it may drop its buds.
  • If the cactus sheds its buds one winter, don’t worry: it should bloom the following year!

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 that your soil doesn’t get too dry while buds are forming.

The plant may be susceptible to mealy bugs and, if over-watered, root rot. If you have problems, cut out infected areas and repot in clean soil.

Recommended Varieties

There are three main types of “holiday cacti” available:

  • Thanksgiving cacti(Schlumbergera truncata) bloom from late fall to mid-winter and are often mislabeled as Christmas cacti.
  • Christmas cacti(S. x buckleyi) bloom from early winter to mid-winter.
  • Easter cacti(S. gaertneri) bloom from later winter to mid-spring.


A giant Thankgiving cactus in bloom. Photo by Catherine Boeckmann.


Watch the video: My Schlumbergera buckleyi True Christmas Cactus in beautiful Bloom in the Polytunnel