Monday 17 December 2012

Christmas cactus

Schlumbergera - the Christmas cactus is yet another of those plants with confusing names. You will be lucky if it flowers at Christmas but it is a true cactus, although you might not recognise it as such. As far as latin names go, it has been so hybridized between diverse genera and species that almost anything goes! 
Schlumbergera truncatus is now endangered in its natural habitat in Brazil. Indeed, matters have been made worse by introducing modern hybrids into the wild. It’s natural terrain is rocky, warm and shaded at about 1000 meters height.

It is pollinated by hummingbirds in the wild

When growing this cactus, it is important to recognize that it is not a desert cactus It does not need high light in summer nor drought in winter! It is described as an epiphyte and in nature grows on organic debris on the branches of trees under the leaf canopy. It also grows on shaded rocks in cracks and crevices. 

We used to grow zygocactus - as it was then called - at Askham Bryan 
College as a commercial pot plant for the Christmas market. In January, three cuttings were placed direct into John Innes No.1 compost into the same small pots in which they would flower later that year. They were watered and placed straight under the warm greenhouse bench! This otherwise wasted space is both humid and shaded - very similar to this cactus’s natural habitat. By October the ‘zygos’ were brought out and spaced out on top of the bench, where the brighter conditions were enough to induce flowers.

specimen cuttings

cuttings  inserted

Christmas cacti come in many colours - pink, red, white and yellow. It’s low light requirement makes it an excellent house plant. In autumn and winter we stand our pots in plastic hanging baskets in our east facing conservatory. We live much of our life in this room so it is quite warm! The conditions suit the plants so well, they flower twice, in October and March. They do look rather moribund between flowering, and even more so in summer. Having seen epiphytes stressed in the wild, I persuade myself that a few brown scars are part of their charm!

Foliage may go bronze if exposed to high light
If you occasionally forget to water, they don’t really mind. Ours get watered if I remember, about once a week throughout the year. Our own plants have a six month summer holiday in our very small, north-facing, glass entrance porch.
A good liquid feed for house plants is one formulated for tomatoes. Christmas cacti can be fed at normal strength every month throughout the year.
Some people have a problem with Christmas cacti dropping their flower buds. This might be due to low temperature or because there is insufficient winter light. Although in summer the plant will thrive away from the window in a bright room, winter light is much less intense and the days are short. Best that the plants are on a warm window-sill on the inside of the curtain. 

Poppy’s favourite perch. He does not permit humming birds


  1. We used to have a few of these but I can't remember what happened to them. I heard turning the pots made the buds drop too.

  2. Thanks Sue, a lot of folk have this problem. Flowering time is a period of maximum stress, and is the time they need maximum light and yet it's the time of the year natural light is worst. If they have been warm enough and in a light enough position they should not drop their buds. Its only when they are really unhappy that moving them is just the final straw and they drop their buds. Its a bit of a catch 22 position when you want to bring them into a warm position at night and moving them makes them drop their buds. Moving a happy plant does no harm at all!

    1. I guess this could be why when you buy a plant in full bud it sometimes drops when it comes home. I had the bizarre idea that turning a plant on a windowsill meant the buds turn to the light and wiggle themselves off! I know of people who actually mark the position of the plant when they remove it to clean and make sure it goes back in the same position - obviously a bit of a waste of time now you've explained it.

    2. I think with a purchased plant dropping flower buds it is more to do with a temperature shock compared with their growing conditions, possibly during cold nights on the wrong side of the curtain. Or perhaps much more likely, cold conditions in transit or on display before it was purchased

  3. My wife has a Christmas Cactus. It is at least 22 years old now. We placed it in a bay window and watered it occasionally. It lived but the stems were soft. It bloomed once every year in early December (we live near Buffalo, NY). For the past year my wife decided to give it some TLC, placing it in an east side window and watering more religiously, and probably most important - added some "plant food". Her pet has very firm stems and doesn't "lie down" anymore. It was full of flowers in Nov-Dec 2013! Now, much to our surprise, it is blooming again in Mar '14. Now we call it the Christmas-Easter Cactus

  4. Nice story Anon. Your cactus has had a hard life in its youth but is blossoming - literally- in its old age. Has your wife tried some cuttings?
    As mentioned in my post if they are happy they frequently do flower twice


Note: only a member of this blog may post a comment.

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...