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Opinion >  Column

Gardening: Caring for Christmas cacti to bloom in time for holidays

Christmas cactus, when cared for correctly, will bloom in time for the holiday.  (Pat Munts/For The Spokesman-Review)
Christmas cactus, when cared for correctly, will bloom in time for the holiday. (Pat Munts/For The Spokesman-Review)

One of the joys of my Christmas is having my large Christmas cactus start blooming. It’s shiny green, cascading foliage is tipped with hot pink flowers starting in early December and going well into January. It heightens the anticipation of the season and brings some brightness to the dark, muted days of early winter.

I actually have two plants. One is about 3 feet across and lives in a very large clay pot that takes two of us and a hand truck to haul out to the deck and back each summer.

The second is a daughter plant that was created from cuttings about 10 years ago when I left the mother plant out where the deer could get to it. They nibbled off all the “leaves” save for one branch. Not knowing if it would survive, I took cuttings from the remaining branch and stuck them in a pot of soil to root.

Well, the cuttings rooted and the mother plant grew a new crop of leaves. I didn’t have the heart to get rid of either of them so my living room has two monster plants. Or should I say two cheerful heralds of Christmas.

Christmas cacti are not true cacti like we would find in a desert. They are actually tropical forest dwellers that live in the hollows of the Brazilian rainforest trees that have collected enough organic matter to support a plant. There are two types; the Christmas cactus has rounded lobes on its succulent leaves while the Thanksgiving cactus has pointed leaves and blooms a few weeks earlier. The spikes also give the plant the name of crab cactus. The flowers range in color from white and yellow to orange, pink, red, and magenta.

If my deer experiment didn’t speak to the hardiness of these plants, consider this: They can handle temperatures close to freezing and tolerate drought quite well.

Unlike desert cacti, these plants love indirect light like what is found in the shade of their native forests. In the house, mine live next to tall, north-facing windows during the winter and under the shade of a vine maple tree that over hangs our deck from late May until late September.

To do their best they need regular water to keep the soil evenly moist. In the winter we water them about once a week and during their vacation outdoors, they are watered off an automated sprayer system that comes on for about 15 minutes daily. Like all plants, the plants are fairly dormant through the winter so they can’t really use fertilizers efficiently until spring arrives. Then they benefit from a good houseplant fertilizer.

To set buds the plants need cool, dark nights starting in September. They also need three weeks of dark nights. We bring ours in little after the vernal equinox in September if the weather allows and that seems to do the trick. Buds will form on the ends to the branches and be ready to bloom in early December.

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