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True Christmas Cactus: Schlumbergera buckeyi

True Christmas Cactus: Schlumbergera buckeyi

Louise Grabell

It’s November! What happened to summer? Well, let’s look ahead to pleasant days and cool nights. What could be bad? OK—so let’s think forward to the holidays and plants that we can use to brighten up the interior of our homes. Poinsettias come to mind first and cyclamens second. But what about the Christmas cactus? Also known as Thanksgiving cactus, the genus Schlumbergera comes from Brazil and contains only six species. True Christmas cactus is the species Schlumbergera buckleyi.

Christmas cacti actually like a cooler, moister environment than the typical Arizona cactus. They are tropical plants and not particularly drought tolerant. They can wilt under water stress and will drop all their buds if exposed to very dry conditions. So why am I talking about this plant? Because, in fact, it will do quite well inside your home if exposed to sunlight and kept in a relatively cool location—like in a container on the floor where indoor heat will have the least effect. If you don’t blast your heat in winter these plants will do well near a sunny window. They will grow in low-light conditions, too, but may not bloom freely. They can survive outdoors in spring, summer and fall if kept in a shady location—at least during May and June when we have the hottest, driest days. Monsoon weather is perfectly OK for these plants!

Christmas cacti are long-lived and have been passed down from generation to generation. The pad-like stems can be cut and easily re-rooted in another pot. Pruning your Christmas cactus after blooming will encourage new branches and sites for even more blooms the following year. Long dark nights are the trigger for bud-setting, much like poinsettias, but you don’t have to go to the trouble of closeting your Christmas cactus to encourage blooms. They will set buds without this tedious effort. You can do it if you like (12 hours in the closet!), but if yours is not blooming, go to the store and buy another one! I found that by just exposing mine to the cool nights of October and November encourage massive blooms. So if your plant is enjoying the outdoors, leave it out until you see the buds developing and then bring it inside. No frosty nights allowed, so pay attention to the weather reports.

Care of Christmas cactus involves watering when the top one inch of soil feels dry and fertilizing with a general all-purpose fertilizer. You might consider a friend for your Christmas cactus and purchase an Easter cactus so you will have springtime blooms as well. Easter cactus has rounded teeth along the leaf pad segments and blooms primarily in spring and is known to re-bloom at other times of the year. Thanksgiving cactus has two to four pointy teeth along the segments and Christmas cactus looks more scalloped. Now you know the differences!

Remember: Nothing brings more tranquility to the heart than a beautiful garden.