The Christmas cactus is a long lived plant with flat, segmented stems. Most of the year its appearance is fairly unassuming — some potted green in the corner of the living room or parked under a tree in the back yard.
Around Christmas, however, something magical happens.
With care, this plain looking plant will blossom with flowers of red, white, pink, purple or orange. Because of this festive seasonal bloom, the Christmas cactus is a tradition in many European and North American homes during the holidays.
Caring for Christmas Cactus
Christmas cactus thrives in bright, but indirect sunlight. Keep it near a window when indoors or shaded by trees if kept outdoors in warmer months.
Despite its name, the Christmas cactus is not a desert plant, but rather has its origins in the tropical rain forests of South America. If you live in a dry climate, make sure a source of humidity like a shallow tray of water is kept nearby. The plant will not tolerate dry soil and requires regular watering (done at the base of the plant).
Conversely, too much water will cause leaves to spot and fall off. Allow the top layer of soil to dry completely before watering.
Ensuring a Christmas Bloom
In fall, night temperatures around 50-55 degrees will trigger Christmas cactus to form flower buds. A carefully monitored balance of darkness and sunlight will give you beautiful blooms in time for the holidays.
Six to eight weeks before Christmas, place the plant in a completely dark space where the temperature is 60 degrees (such as a closet or garage) for 12 hours each night. Some people put a box over their plant each morning, and remove it at night. Be sure to bring the plant out to a sunny spot for the other 12 hours each day. Water only when the top inch or so of the soil feels dry, and you should get flowers for the holiday.
A few weeks after the flowers have faded, prune stems back to encourage new growth.
Propagating Christmas Cactus
Passing along Christmas cactus cuttings to propagate new plants is a popular family holiday tradition. To propagate your Christmas cactus, cut off at least three stem segments and place them into a small pot of soil (preferably taken from the pot of the parent plant). Bury at least one segment. Care for the cutting as a mature plant and it should take root in 4 to 6 weeks.