Christmas cactus

Credit: Sharon Hanna

Though I’m not a huge fan of houseplants, I do like to have a number of these around and even take cuttings which root very easily in spring. It’s partly the crazy, overdone—almost tacky—colours, with some flower parts even clashing with others within the same flower. It must be something to do with my mother who grew them, along with the requisite collection of African violets and Rex begonias.

Not cacti at all, these plants are epiphytes, which grow in very little soil or organic material in the crotches of trees, etc. They were formerly known as ‘zygocactus,’ and botanical Latin assigns the name Schlumbergera to the Christmas ones. Another type was called Rhipsalidopsis, somewhat lately shortened to Rhipsalis (this gives people at the RHS something to do). I’m never quite clear which is which, but one has more jagged leaves, and the other more rounded. (My grandmother used to call the Rhipsalis type “Easter” cactus…)

Like other epiphytic plants, these dislike too much water in the soil—it’s really there only to anchor the roots. Two things that seem to make a big difference in these plants (for me, at least) are feeding and putting them outdoors.

I move them outside as soon as it begins to warm up in spring—they can take the cold but should be kept in a sheltered location. Soil should never be waterlogged, especially when combined with cold temperatures. At all times of year, “less is more” in the water department, but they do like misting daily or whenever you are feeling virtuous. Adding some good seaweed-based foliar feed to the water sprayer is a great idea and you’ll be rewarded with way more blooms.

They go out into my unheated greenhouse sometime in late March or early April, usually—and sometimes right out into the garden after being accustomed gradually to direct sun. Feed them at least once a month, March through September, with just about anything fairly balanced that you happen to have around. They put on quite a bit of growth during this time, and at my house they stay outdoors until around Halloween or even later, if the mercury doesn’t dip too far down. The stress of being brought indoors usually makes them bloom like crazy. Again, avoid overwatering; they really don’t need much water at all.

Christmas cactus can last for hundreds of years and get very large, but don’t feel you need to keep giving them a larger pot, as they don’t mind being potbound.