Christmas cacti are splendid plants. They pump out masses of delicate jungle flowers in rosy red, white, orange, pink, and pale yellow, depending on the variety, just in time for the festive season. And although they’re a true cactus, their spines are so tiny and soft that you’ll barely notice them – and never get pricked. Also as each outer leaf produces its own flower the display gets better year on year.
They are available in shops and garden centres right now and are just perfect for those hard-to-buy-for souls. Also, according to my neighbour, who grows prize-winning cacti, they can live for 25 years or more so they’re the gift that just keeps on giving.
Christmas cactus care!
Light Christmas cacti are tropical epiphytes, which grow naturally in rain-forest trees. Choose a cool, bright spot, out of direct sun is best. Try an east-facing windowsill, and it won’t know it ever left the jungle.
Humidity They love a humid atmosphere so are best grown on a gravel tray. Fill a waterproof bowl with gravel then add water to half way up the gravel. Place the potted plant on top of the gravel.
Water As it’s tropical it’s less drought-tolerant than other cacti species. Water thoroughly then allow the top half-inch or inch of soil to dry out before watering again.
Fertilizer As new leaves appear or when flower buds start to swell, apply a liquid fertilizer formulated for houseplants every 7 to 10 days until the growth or flowering cycle ends.
Repotting Christmas cacti flower best when they’re pot-bound. Every year or so, gently pull the plant out of its container and check the roots. When roots start to mat where they touch the inside of the pot, move the plant into a container that’s an inch larger in diameter. Gently rough up the matted roots with a knife or fork before you repot.
After Christmas When flowering is over, keep the plant indoors until the weather warms in late spring. New growth tends to start in March. If you particularly want the plant to flower at Christmas then next November put the cactus in a place where nights are cool (about 10-12C) and there’s no artificial light. After flower buds form, you can stop the cool/dark treatment and start fertilizing for a strong three-week bloom cycle.
My neighbour tells me that Christmas cacti are pretty forgiving souls and that even if you’re unsuccessful at inducing Christmas blooms you should be treated to regular flowering displays throughout the year. What could be nicer?
Rachael Leverton