Regional Gardening Reports :: National Gardening Association

In the Garden:
Northern California Coastal & Inland Valleys
April, 2009
Regional Report

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My friend Buzz gave me this little plant. My best guess is that it's a cross between a Christmas cactus and an epiphyllum.

Christmas in May

I ruined a beautiful planting of red geraniums back in the 1970's and that particular family of plants has never forgiven me. I can't grow a geranium to save my soul. Not so with Christmas cactus (Schlumbergera spp). They bloom for me, on and off, all throughout the year. I don't know why I have such good luck with this particular plant, but it carries over to the orchid cactus (Epiphyllum spp) as well. I love the little crab-shaped flowers of the schlumbergera and keep them picked off as they fade. The plant rewards my efforts by continuously producing new buds.

Growing Requirements
The family of schlumbergera are epiphytic, growing in the shade on the bark of tropical trees. They like a resting period during the winter months when I allow my plants to go slightly dry between waterings and withhold fertilizer completely. Tropical forests have a dry season, and I try to mimic my watering habits to match. I think the reason some people don't have luck with Christmas cactus is because they keep them too dry, or worse, too damp. The leaves should feel plump and firm to the touch which is another reason I love them!

The plants bloom best in bright, indirect light, but an east-facing window will do. If you have a south facing window, set them back from the glass so they don't receive full sun, or grow them behind cloud drapes.

When the plants are setting new foliage, fertilize with liquid fish, if you can put up with the fragrance. I also use liquid fish as a foliar spray, but I then don't mind the odor. I usually do the liquid fish foliar treatment just before I leave my office in the afternoon and by the next morning, the unpleasant scent is only a faint memory. Tiny new leaves will appear at leaf joints and at the ends of branches, indicating the beginning of the growing season.

Prevent plants from becoming leggy by pinching back long branches after the bloom and before new growth begins.

Cuttings from Christmas cactus will take root quickly in damp sand or potting soil. Just don't water for ten days after planting. I like to grow several colors of flowers in one pot, although they don't all bloom simultaneously.

To water, plunge the pots into a basin filled with tepid water when the surface of the soil feels dry to the touch. I use water recycled from the fish tank, and that seems to work very well. Make sure the bubbles have stopped rising from the surface of the soil, or allow the plants to soak for about 5 minutes, then allow them to drain until water stops dripping from the drain hole. I keep my plants on a saucer filled with gravel to increase humidity, once again to mimic the tropical forest environment.

Other Varieties
There are several holidays covered by the schlumbergera family of plants. Thanksgiving cactus, which bloom in early November, can be identified by the sharply toothed leaves, while the Christmas cactus has a more rounded edge to the foliage. Both plants require the same type of care. There is also an Easter cactus that usually has iridescent light pink flowers and ribbed foliage. Don't be intimidated by the various varieties but keep them all in your collection, if you have room.

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