Congratulations! You just inherited a holiday cactus that has been in the family for years… and I do mean years. Great Aunt Ethel passed it down to Grandma Rose, who passed it down to your dad, who passed it on to you. Now what?
Holiday Cacti Basics
There are three types of holiday cacti:
- Thanksgiving cactus
- Christmas cactus
- Easter cactus.
Just because you have a Christmas cactus, don’t expect to wake up Christmas morning and find your cactus to be magically in bloom. The common name gives a general time frame for what time of year the plant blooms, not a specific date. Bloom time is actually determined by night time temperatures and hours of light each day. Holiday cacti can live for over a 100 years, so it is very possible for your cacti to out live you and be passed down to future generations.
Holiday Cacti Care
Holiday cacti are true cacti, but unlike most cacti they are native to rainforests, not deserts. Because they’re native to rainforests, they need high humidity, relatively moist soils, and bright but filtered light year round.
However, like other cacti, holiday cacti need good drainage and aeration for healthy roots. Pick a potting mix designed for cacti, or make your own by mixing builder’s sand or perlite into sterile potting media.
When you water, allow plants to drain thoroughly and make sure they are not sitting is excess water. Empty trays or saucers beneath plants is a good way to provide moisture without drowning them. Excess water could cause flower buds to drop, or cause root rot and wilting. Allow soil to dry out between waterings.
If you put your cactus outside during the summer, make sure you put it where it will receive part shade (3-6 hours of sunlight). Too much sun could cause the branches to sunburn. Make sure to check your cacti, as well as other house plants, over before bringing them back inside in the fall. Look for pests and diseased branches. Remove any pests and debris such as leaves. Make sure the container is clean as well. Clean containers with a damp cloth.
As most people grow holiday cacti hoping they will bloom, there are a few things you need to know. Holiday cacti require shorter days and longer nights as well as cool night temperatures in order to produce buds. This can be accomplished several different ways:
- Option 1: Leave cacti outside until just before frost danger. Nature will take care of lower night time temperatures and shorter days (assuming it isn’t placed near a street light).
- Option 2: Place cacti indoors in a cool but bright location where daytime temperatures are 65-70 degrees and evening temperatures are 55-65 degrees. Plants must have at least 12 hours of complete darkness every night for about 6 weeks.
- Option 3: Place cacti indoors where night temperatures are about 55 degrees. Plants should bloom in 5-6 weeks, sometimes regardless of the day length.
If you have an Easter cactus, your plant will need longer short days in order to bloom. This means that in late fall/early winter reduce the light your plant receives to be less than 12 hours a day, and reduce the temperature. Then be patient and wait, it may take 8-12 weeks before buds form.
Once your cacti has budded decide if you need to move it for display. Move it as soon as buds appear as holiday cacti do NOT like changes to their environment once they start to bloom. Changes in light, temperature, and humidity can all cause buds to drop.
Holiday Cacti Dos and Don’ts
- Do keep your cacti in a humid environment.
- Don’t waterlog it. Let the soil dry out between waterings. Otherwise you are liable to end up with a dead, rotting plant.
- Do allow your cacti to be chilled, especially at night (55-60 degrees).
- Don’t allow your cacti to be frosted or frozen.
- Do allow your cacti to be root bound.
- Don’t forget to repot your cacti every few years, as they do like nutrient rich potting media, and media will break down over time.