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Christmas Cactus

Why your holiday
color didn't return

By: Sandy Feather ©2010
Penn State Extension

Sandy's Garden


Q. My son bought me a beautiful Christmas cactus last year. It was completely covered with flowers. I was really looking forward to a repeat performance this year, but there are no flowers. The plant has grown and seems healthy, so why isn't it blooming?
  

 

A. Like poinsettias, Christmas cacti (Schlumbergera x 'Bridgesii') bloom in response to long nights. Fortunately, they are not nearly as fastidious about the long night routine as long as they are grown in cool temperatures. Your plant likely did not receive either the proper light regimen or cool enough temperatures.


Blooming Requirements

Christmas cacti require cool temperatures in the fall to develop flower buds, between 45 and 55 degrees. Place them in a cool area in early fall to have them in full bloom for Christmas. Perhaps you have an unheated, attached garage. An unheated sunroom is perfect because Christmas cacti bloom best in bright, indirect light. They are understory plants in their native habitat and can actually be burned in hot afternoon sun. Do not allow them to be exposed to freezing temperatures.

Christmas Cactus

  
Light & Dark Cycle

Alternatively, you can alter the amount of daylight it receives and trick it into bloom. Christmas cacti and poinsettias require 14 hours of darkness every night to initiate flowering. Simply cover your Christmas cactus with a box or put it in a closet or an unused room from 6 p.m. until 8 a.m. Once the flower buds form, you can keep it in its usual place.

If you are moving your plant from place to place, be careful to maintain the same orientation toward the sun. Otherwise, the flower buds will try to point themselves toward the sun. If this happens repeatedly, they will weaken to the point of falling off the plant before they open.

Remember that Christmas cacti are jungle cacti rather than desert cacti. Water them as frequently as your other houseplants.


Q. I received a beautiful Christmas cactus that was just loaded with flowers and unopened buds. I'm concerned because quite a few of those flower buds are falling off before they open. Can you tell me why this is happening to my Christmas cactus and how I can stop it? Would it help to fertilize it, and if so, what fertilizer should I use?

A: Flower bud drop is one of the most common problems with Christmas cacti. It is caused by a number of factors, ranging from a sudden change in light or temperature to excessive or insufficient water. Since you received your plant recently, the problem could be as simple as moving it from the ideal greenhouse conditions where it was grown to your home where the air is probably drier and perhaps the light is not as bright.

Christmas Cactus flower

Christmas cacti perform best in bright, indirect light. Their leaves can burn if they are exposed to full afternoon sun, even indoors. Also, their flowers will fade quickly and their buds will drop from excessive heat in such a situation. It is also important to site them away from heat vents because dry air blowing on them can also cause bud drop. Likewise, avoid placing them where they will be exposed to cold drafts from outside doors.

Not a desert cacti

Despite the word “cactus” in their name, Christmas cacti are not desert cacti and will not tolerate extremely dry soil. They prefer evenly moist, but never saturated soil. Ideally, you should move your plant to a sink or bathtub to water it. Water until it drains from the holes in the bottom of the pot. (If the pot it is growing in does not have drainage holes in the bottom, repot it into one that does). Allow it to drain thoroughly, and then return it to its usual spot. If it is too large to move easily, be sure to drain excess water from the saucer so that the plant is never sitting in water for any length of time.

Christmas Cactus bloom

Allow the soil to dry slightly between waterings. You can stick a finger into the top inch or two of soil to check for sufficient moisture. If the soil feels dry, go ahead and water; if it is still moist, wait until it feels dry before you water again. Keeping a Christmas cactus too wet will result in root rot, which can also cause bud drop, and will eventually kill it.

Proper fertilization

Avoid fertilizing your Christmas cactus when it is blooming. We typically recommend fertilizing houseplants from April through September, when they are actively growing and can make good use of the nutrients. Houseplants respond to the lower light levels in our homes during the winter and cease active growth. When you do fertilize, use a balanced, water-soluble fertilizer such as Miracle-Gro, Peters 20-20-20, liquid sea kelp or fish emulsion. Always read and follow label directions. When it comes to fertilizer, more is never better.


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