I live on Kodiak, the second-largest island in the U.S. Did you know that it’s mostly a wildlife refuge for coastal brown bears? What does that have to do with Christmas cactus? First of all, Merriam-Webster set me straight. Again. Because the plural of cactus is—are you ready?—cactuses, cacti and yes, cactus.
I agree with cactuses and cacti. But not ‘cactus.’
It’s just like when people return to our B&B after a bear-viewing excursion, they’re gushing and excited about seeing these giants up close and personal.
“We saw three bear!” they exclaim.
What’s with that?
Yikes. Several years ago, I started hearing ‘bear’ used in reference to more than one bear. It raised the [bear] hair on the back of my [bare] neck. More on that later.
Now to Christmas cactus…
October is when we Alaskans turning more of our attention to indoor activities. And for many of us, this means we start noticing our houseplants for the first time since March. One plant in particular, the Christmas cactus, is a tabletop icon in Kodiak. You may have noticed an increasing number of posts showing giant and bold-bloomed Christmas cactuses on Facebook.
It’s no wonder. What makes these plants icons is their ability to bloom when everything else outside looks brown and reserved, save for Sitka spruce. It’s for that reason that Schlumbergeras became such a popular ornamental plant in the mid-1800s.
But not all Christmas cacti bloom when we expect them to. That is, in time for the holidays. Here is a sampler of disgruntled cactus owners:
“My cactus never blooms.”
“Why are the blooms yellow, not red?”
“Why do the buds form and then drop off?”
“Why do the leaves shrivel up like prunes?”
Ah, misunderstandings. George Bernard Shaw once said,
“The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.”
So, we seek out information, often going online. That’s where we can get into trouble.
“Beware of the half-truth,” I read the other day. “You may have gotten hold of the wrong half.”
Case in point: The Christmas cactus
For one thing, a Christmas cactus (in the genus Schlumergera) isn’t a cactus at all. This innocent plant, that quietly suffers on many a shelf and table, wishes it could be back home.
And what is home to a Christmas cactus, you ask?
Not the North Pole. They live in the humid, tropical jungles of South America. Christmas cacti are not from the hot, sandy desert, folks. They perch on trees (epiphytes) or grow on rocks (lithophytes). Now you understand why our dry interior spaces spell misery for these poor plants.
The dangling, tubular flowers of the Christmas cactus, also known as crab cactus, begin as buds that ‘set’ in early autumn for a blooming period around Christmas. These flower buds start to form as autumn progresses with longer, cooler nights.
So here’s the problem: As the cool weather kicks in so does the heating system in most homes and office buildings. The resulting hot, dry air can destroy buds and cause emerging flowers to simply fall off before they get a chance to show their stuff.
How to give your Christmas cactus a bloomin’ chance:
Container and soil: Christmas cacti grow well in most container soils, so long as it drains well. Which means making sure that your pots have drainage holes.
Dry or moist? Keep the soil moist (somewhere between bone dry and soggy). But you want to think like a plant, not act like a clock. If, when you touch the soil with your finger and it feels dry, soak the soil until water runs through the pot’s drainage holes. Toss out the water in the tray (and into the compost bucket, by the sink, right?) so the plant doesn’t sit in it. And make that your soil doesn’t get too dry while buds are forming.
Promise that you’ll mist your Christmas cactus with water several times a week. This makes it feel at home by increasing the humidity levels around the plant, and it helps keep the leaves dust-free. If your cactus is especially dusty, give it a shower.
Light: Keep plants in bright, but indirect light. Tropical forests have dappled, not direct, light. Also, rotate it every week or when you water so that it gets even light.
Bloom time: When the buds of your Christmas cactus look as if they’re about to burst open, make sure you water the plant regularly and keep it cool.
Troubleshooting your Christmas cactus
If your cactus is not blooming: It may be due to the amount of daylight they’re getting or the temperature.
To trigger blooming: Nights need to be at least 14 hours long and days between 8 to 10 hours for six weeks.
According to the Old Farmer’s Almanac, “Flowers will only form when the temperature is between a cool 50 to 55°F (10 to 13°C).” Hmmm. Good luck with that. And if your Christmas cactus drops its buds one winter, don’t worry: it should bloom the following year. That’s the theory.
On the other hand…
Blossom drop: If your Christmas cactus is exposed to stress, the plant will probably react by dropping its blossoms. Stress can come in the form of a sudden change in temperature, as in transporting it from house to another, or if the soil is too soggy or it dries out to the consistency of a cow pie in the desert.
Pests: These plants 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.
Re-potting: Some sources claim it’s best to transplant every year after blooming. That’s open for debate because these plants prefer to be on the side of root-bound. Like wearing tight shoes. But if you DO transplant your Christmas, wait until they are finished blooming and only to a pot that is slightly larger.
So, what IS the plural of bear?
Okay. I looked up ‘bear’ in the Merriam-Webster dictionary. Guess what? The plural ‘bear’ is ‘bears.’ Score! A tiny victory.
Then I scrolled down and read through the definitions of bear which included: “Something difficult to do or deal with.” Such as, “it’s a bear to clean a dusty Christmas cactus.”
But oh, it makes a Christmas cactus a merry one!
Christmas cactus cheers to you,
P.S. You might also like these articles I wrote…
Have you ever wondered? Does Snow Help or Harm Plants?
Organic Gardening Tips for Cool Climate Gardening: A general guide and helpful links
Cranberry sauce recipe and 8 curious facts about cranberries: Yummy recipes, helpful tips, and lovely photos (If I say so myself!)
Are you busy? Me, too. I’m on a mission to help busy people survive day-to-day life by condensing topics like photography, cooking, and organic gardening into bite-size pieces. When you sign up for my Goodness from Kodiak newsletter, you get my free 4-page “In Good Light: Photo Tips for Busy People” — I promise that you’ll feel newly recharged when taking pictures!
Paula TownsendMay 30, 2020 at 4:18 AM
I enjoyed your article! I have a larger Christmas Cactus that is apparently very confused. It’s at least 30 years old, I forget when I got it now but at least 30. I live in Reno NV, it’s not humid by any streach of the imagination. My cactus blooms on and off all year, perhaps when it gets too dry because I forget it and then water it, it must rejoice and bloom again. It seems to bloom most of the year on and off, but I can count on it in the fall/winter. I try to remember to take care of it; it doesn’t seem to mind my lack of attention.
marionowenJune 2, 2020 at 6:31 AM
Hi Paula, after a hiatus of a couple decades, I have a single sprig of Xmas cactus in my kitchen window. I snitched it from my dentist’s office. My hope is that it’s as confused as yours — blooming off and on all year. We need flowers — especially in the winter. Thanks for the update from Reno!
Kathleen PearsonDecember 10, 2019 at 6:07 PM
Great article, Marion :). I now know what I didn’t know about growing Christmas cactus. The last one I had got so big I no longer had room for it and I gave it away. Living in an apartment, I don’t have room for as many plants as I would like to have…..maybe I will get another one someday. Maybe someday there will be a mini Christmas cactus. That would be nice for my small space :). Happy Holidays!
marionowenDecember 10, 2019 at 6:51 PM
The can be kind of tricky. It helps to think “tropical” for sure. I am trying to root a cutting, nursing through winter’s darkness on the windowsill. Wish it luck! Love to you all days!