Christmas cactus: A gift that keeps on giving

  • Published: Thursday, Dec. 14, 2017

COLUMBIA, Mo. – The summer they were married, Dan and Earlene Britton received a cutting from a Christmas cactus belonging to Earlene’s grandmother Naomi Ingrum. Thirty-six years later, the Brittons and the cactus continue to do well in spite of coast-to-coast moves and climate changes.

University of Missouri Extension horticulturist David Trinklein says Christmas cactus is a gift that gives for many years with proper care. Missouri cactus caretakers like the Brittons are examples of how this seasonal favorite becomes a living family heirloom.

Dan and Earlene’s plant took a growth spurt in its last move, in 2001 to Versailles, Mo., where the Brittons are members of MU Extension’s Ozark Prairie Master Gardeners of Morgan County.

They parked it in front of a south-facing window and left it there. “Some people say you have to put Christmas cactus in the dark to get it to bloom, but I never have, and this one blooms every year from November through April,” Earlene said.

The cutting took three or four years to bloom. It never fails to produce an abundance of fuchsia-colored blooms.

It is now 4 feet tall and 5 feet wide. “It is the largest one I have ever seen,” Earlene said. “It is a pretty hardy ‘little’ plant.” She waters it once a week and fertilizes it every three months. They have transplanted it three times.

Lois Little’s children and grandchildren of have kept starts of her Christmas cactus going since her death in 1965. Lois and her husband, Lambert, had 21 children and 75 grandchildren when she died, so the “Little” cactus now has a “big” presence. The descendants of the Ralls County couple share about 20 new starts each year with friends and family. They take the starts when the cacti are not in bloom.

Little’s granddaughter Becky White of Emden, Mo., keeps her plant in full sunlight from the northeast year-round. She waters it weekly, fertilizes it every three months and never moves it. Every year, it bursts with blooms just before her family Christmas dinner.

Trinklein has recommendations if you want similar success with your Christmas cactus:

Christmas cacti tolerate low light, but perform best in bright, indirect light in the home. Brighter light is beneficial during the winter, but full summer sun can result in pale plants. Keep plants in a semi-shady location if placed outside for the summer. Christmas cacti prefer temperatures of 70 to 80 F for their April to September growing season.

Like most cacti, Christmas cacti do not grow well in a wet root environment. Christmas cacti tolerate underwatering better than overwatering, Trinklein said. Water only when the growing medium is dry to the touch. If you put a saucer under the pot to collect drainage water, empty it to keep excess water from wicking back into the pot. Failure to do so results in a soggy root environment, which is an open invitation to root rot.

Reduce watering from fall through spring. Only fertilize plants during their growth period of early spring through late summer. Use a regular fertilizer at one-quarter strength or a houseplant fertilizer according to label directions.

Keep Christmas cacti slightly pot-bound to induce prolific flowering. Repotting may be necessary every three years. Use a porous, well-drained potting mix. Commercial mixes made for epiphytes are good choices. Make regular peat-lite mixes into epiphytic mixes by adding perlite or sterile sharp sand to increase porosity.

Reblooming Christmas cacti can be challenging, Trinklein said. The cacti are short-day plants. However, temperature affects their response to day length. In fact, Trinklein says, flowering will occur regardless of day length under cool night conditions (50-55 F).

Prolific flowering occurs when plants are exposed to cool nights with at least 13 hours of darkness. Reduce water to slightly stress the plant at this time to improve flowering. Expose holiday cacti to short days, cool nights and dry conditions in mid-October for full bloom during the holiday season.

Sudden changes in temperature, light or other factors, such as excessive drying of the growing medium, can cause Christmas cacti to drop unopened flower buds. Poor flowering also happens when stray light interrupts the required long periods of darkness during short-day treatment. Interior home lights, streetlights and even car lights can disrupt the required dark period and cause disappointing flowering, Trinklein said.

Christmas cacti are prone to root rot. Avoid overwatering and maintain strict sanitation. Remove common insect pests, which include mealybug and scale.

“Given proper care, Christmas cacti often outlive their caretaker and provide years of brilliant color around Christmas,” said Trinklein. “The small amount of effort required by these plants is well worth it when one considers the reward of seeing an ‘heirloom’ plant bloom year after year.”

For more information about the MU Extension Master Gardener program.

Writer: Linda Geist

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David Trinklein

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