The holidays are a time for old traditions, and one of these in the gardening world is Christmas Cactus. The real name is actually zygocactus, but its holiday name comes from its consistent blooming during the holiday season.
Christmas Cactus are not your typical cactus. Native to Brazil, these cacti do not have needles or spines like the cactus that most people think of. The plant blooms from the ends of its branches, and its blooms vary in color from white, yellow and orange to red pink and magenta.
The buds are set in the fall when the plant is exposed to cooler temperatures at night, between 50 and 60 degrees Fahrenheit. After it is done blooming at Christmas, it will rest some and then set more buds to bloom again during the Spring, often falling around the time of Easter.
To care for your Christmas Cactus, keep it in bright but indirect light. It is best to keep the cactus away from drafts, heat vents, fireplaces or other sources of hot air. You can also move the plant outdoors in summer to a shady location.
These cactus are low maintenance, but for the best results, provide a source of humidity for your cactus if your house is dry. You can do this by making a humidity tray by placing the pot on a waterproof saucer that is filled with gravel and halfway filled with water.
When it comes to watering, it is important to remember that Christmas Cactus are tropical cacti, not desert cacti. Unlike most desert cacti, this variety cannot tolerate completely dry soil. If the soil gets too dry, the flowers buds will drop, and the plant will wilt. Feel the soil with your fingers; if it feels dry, it's time to water.
Throughout the year, the amount of water the cactus will need will also change. If it outdoors during the summer, water it every two to three days. When it is indoors or in a very humid climate, water it once a week. During the fall and winter months, the plants can be watered less frequently to help promote blooming.
If you want to fertilize your cactus, do so with a houseplant-type fertilizer with a 20-20-20 feed. It can be fertilized two to four times a year, just be sure to stop about a month before the buds appear (October).
Christmas Cactus are thermo-photoperiodic. This means that light and temperature play an important role in setting its buds. Christmas Cactus will set buds when day length is about equal to night length and when the temperature drops to 50 to 60 degrees F for several weeks. During September and October, the Christmas Cactus should be kept in a cool room where temperatures will remain around 50 degrees. This cool treatment will help the plant bloom in time for Christmas.