Christmas Cactus

At a medical office recently, I admired the row of plants along a wide windowsill. They all had abundant gorgeous pink flowers and I was told that they were Christmas Cactus. When I asked, I also learned that they required very little care and that anybody could grow one. The very next day, shopping at my huge grocery store, I saw a display of the same Christmas Cactus plants, some of them with flowers and the rest covered in buds. Though I should know better, it was only three dollars, so I bought one of the plants that had not bloomed yet. The cashier told me that she had one that had never bloomed, and the lady in line behind me mentioned that it would need enormous amounts of light. After about 5 days in my house, all but about 4 of the buds had fallen off completely. The remaining few buds look shriveled and obviously will never open. What happened?

I set out to learn why I was not going to see any beautiful flowers. The first thing I found out was that Christmas Cactus and the spiny plants that grow in the desert are both called cactus, but otherwise they have very little in common. Christmas Cactus belong to one of several species in the Schlumbergera genus, which are native to Brazil. They grow in rainforests and are what is known as Epiphytes. That means that they grow on other plants, or sometimes objects. They are not parasites, but rather grow in the forks of trees, surviving on air, rain and decayed leaves and other debris that collect around them. Christmas Cactus, sometimes called Zygo Cactus, prefers the same type of growing environment as an orchid.

Christmas Cactus are the second most popular holiday plant, behind the poinsettia. They are a succulent, but do not tolerate drought, or wet conditions very well. Soil should be evenly moist, light should be bright, but indirect, and temperature should not be too hot or too cold, with no drafts. They prefer to be root-bound, so the pot should not be too large. Also, to make them bloom at the desired time, they need to be “chilled” in a 55-60 degree area for a couple weeks, about 8 weeks before they should bloom. Plus, it should be completely dark at night, no artificial light. None of these requirements sounds very low maintenance to me!

So, what happened to the buds on my plant? There are many explanations. Some sources say that plants should not be moved while the buds are developing. Others say that cold drafts, or warm air from a register, can make the buds fall off. Still others claim that the temperature differences involved in transporting the plant from the store to the car to my house would be a problem. It is probably a combination of all of these reasons, and I’ll never know for sure. All I can do is wait until next year and hope that I can provide the right conditions that will allow it to flower.

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5 Responses to “Christmas Cactus”

  1. Aunt Mary Says:

    Mine bloomed for the first time in five years about a month ago and it was beautiful. I mentioned it on FB and two people told me about how it has to be in total darkness at night. I really did nothing differently with it thn I had for the past four years. I am going to try to remember the dark think next fall to see if I can get it to bloom.

  2. Raye Fines Says:

    how long these flowers last?

  3. Allegra Says:

    I have a potted Christmas cactus in my room. It is very low maintenance, I just have to water it every once in a while. I’ve grown to call it the Thanksgiving cactus instead of Christmas, because it blooms in late November. 🙂

  4. dasa Says:

    I have several (13) zygo plants for decades and have little problems with them or blooming. I also have them in a clay-unglazed pot: because the water can be drawn into the clay pot and air circulates in the pot better. Every 4-6 months I take a butter knife and loosen the soil around the edge of the pot sometimes the soil becomes impacted. I use abput every 6 months plant food sticks. I water the plants lightly only when dry and keep damp.Often use left over coffee. My plants I keep in the east window area and filter the sun having a sheer curtain. I have had my plants flowering from sept-feb often. I never expected them to bloom this long. I have full plants of blossoms. i keep a watch for different color ones.

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