Regional Gardening Reports :: National Gardening Association

In the Garden:
Upper South
December, 2000
Regional Report

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Enjoy brightly colored holiday cactus flowers now, and with only a little effort you'll have them again next year.

Holiday Cactus

Did you buy or receive a plant labeled as a holiday, Christmas, or Thanksgiving cactus this year? Or do you have one from past years that you're not quite sure how to water and fertilize? With only a bit of care, these plants will reward you with beautiful flowers year after year.

Who Are They?

Holiday cacti are epiphytic succulent plants native to the jungles of the Organ Mountains north of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Their common names are derived from the holidays they bloom near. The Christmas cactus is Schlumbergera bridgesii, and the Thanksgiving cactus is S. truncata. There is also an Easter cactus, S. gaertneri. Much hybridizing has taken place among them, yielding a variety of flower colors - pink, white, yellow, red, and orange, as well as bicolors. The Thanksgiving and Christmas cactus flowers are hooded, flaring tubes, while the Easter flowers are more starlike.

Light, Water, and Fertilizer

Although they are members of the cactus family, holiday cacti require slightly different growing conditions than their spiny relatives. First, they grow best in bright, indirect light rather than full sun. They prefer more water than other cactus, too. From early April until the end of September, water when the soil just begins to dry out. In the fall, let the soil surface dry completely before watering. After flowering is finished, let the top half inch of soil dry out before watering. Then start the April regimen again. Apply a half-strength, water-soluble, houseplant fertilizer every 2 to 4 weeks from April until flowering ends.

Other Growing Tips

Holiday cacti seem to thrive outdoors in the summer. Once nighttime temperatures reach 60oF, set them outside in a shady spot. Just remember to bring them in before the first frost. Here's the best part for the harried gardener: holiday cacti bloom best when slightly potbound. Repotting is usually necessary only every 3 to 4 years, or when the number of blooms starts to decrease. A good potting mixture consists of two parts potting soil, one part peat moss, and one part sharp builder's sand for good drainage.

Getting Them to Rebloom

Holiday cacti rebloom much easier than poinsettias. Cooler temperatures and longer nights cause flower buds to form. The best temperature for inducing bloom is 55oF. Although it's not essential, some people cover their plants for 12 to 14 hours a night with a box or dark plastic bag until buds form. Once they form, move the plant to its regular location.

Making More Plants

Spring is the best time to start a new plant. Just snap off a three-segment long, Y-shaped piece, breaking it at the joint. Set the bottom segment halfway into potting soil and water it, but do not fertilize it until new growth starts.

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