Selecting Christmas cacti

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There’s a trick to getting the floriferous cacti to re-bloom next year

By Susan Brown, County Extension

Susan Brown
Horticulture Extension Agent
The holidays are here and stores are packed with people trying to find that perfect gift. In the spring, I spend all my money on outdoor plants for my garden. Once the weather changes, I start to purchase indoor plants.
This past weekend I visited my old stomping grounds and picked up an assortment of unusual poinsettias. Along with those holiday beauties, I also selected a Christmas cactus. I chose one that had an abundance of tightly wrapped blooms. That way I can enjoy the full explosion of color when the buds open.
When selecting a Christmas cacti, you want to be sure the plant is full, budded, and has a healthy appearance. Holiday cactus actually bloom best when they are slightly pot-bound. Full sunlight is necessary in winter months for best performance.
We typically think of cacti as being heat-tolerant, but Christmas cacti will keep their blooms longer in cooler temperatures. You can find these succulents in colors ranging from a light salmon, pink, fuchsia, to white. They perform best in a sunny location away from drafts, heating vents, or fireplaces. Drafts and temperature can promote buds to drop prematurely. Too much water or too little can also cause buds to drop before opening.
It is best to water the cactus thoroughly when the top half of the soil is dry to the touch. The length between watering is dependent on air temperature, amount of light, and rate of growth relative to humidity.
The trick to getting these plants to re-bloom is to expose them to cooler temperatures or give them long, uninterrupted dark periods, about 12 hours each night. Begin the dark treatments in mid-October to have the plants ready to bloom for the holidays. You can place the plant in a dark closet from 8 p.m.-8 a.m. each night for 6-8 weeks or until you see buds form. If you choose the cooling method, expose cacti to 50-55 degrees starting in early November to have plants blooming for the holidays.
It is not necessary to fertilize the plant while in bloom. Most gardeners enjoy the challenge of keeping the cactus after the holidays in order to encourage it to bloom next year. When cacti are actively growing, they require an all-purpose fertilizer. Depending on the product you choose, it may require fertilizer every other week. Follow label instructions on how to mix and apply.
Pruning your Christmas cactus after blooming will encourage the plant to branch out. Remove a few sections from each stem by pinching them off with your fingers or removing with pruners. Cuttings can be rooted in a soil mixture and will eventually become new plants.
There are many types of holiday cactus and they bloom at different times of the year. They even have slightly different growth habits. Christmas cacti bloom at the stem tips and have scalloped stem segments. Thanksgiving cacti have 2-4 pointy teeth along the stem edges and bloom earlier than Christmas cactus. Lastly, Easter cacti have rounded teeth along stem segments and bloom primarily in the spring.

SUSAN BROWN is a horticulture agent with the Brunswick County Extension Service. Call (910) 253-2610 or e-mail susan_brown@ncsu.edu.