Christmas cacti with their fountains of white, pink, red or purple flowers are a familiar sight in the winter. They are always admired, especially by people without green fingers, but it’s really not hard to produce this wonderful display. You just have to follow the rules.

Christmas cacti

Christmas cactus. © cogito ergo imago and reused under https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/

Forest cacti from Brazil

Unlike the desert cacti we talked about a few months ago, Christmas cacti (Schlumbergera) are forest cacti. They come from the tropical moist forests high up in the coastal mountains of south-east Brazil where they grow on trees.

They have a trailing habit, with stems made of leaf-like flattened segments of about 4-5cm/1.5-2in long. This means they can make a great display in the house.

Christmas cacti

Christmas cactus in bloom on 25 December 2008. © B. D.'s World and reused under https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/

You can have a good display of flowers

There are three basic rules:

  1. Make sure your Christmas cacti have a cool and dry resting period from February to March.
  2. Give them a spell outdoors from June to mid-September. This will allow them to produce next year’s flower buds.
  3. Never move them once they are in full bud.

A couple of other points:

  1. Use rainwater for watering if your tap water is very hard.
  2. Mist their leaves frequently. They come from tropical moist forests so it’s not surprising that they love this.

The timetable for Christmas cacti

Mid-November – end of January. Christmas cacti are in full flower. Water them normally when their compost is getting dry.

Christmas cacti

February – March. This is their resting period. Keep them cool (around 12C) in a spare bedroom perhaps, and water infrequently.

April – May. Treat your Christmas cacti as ordinary house plants. They like a well lit position, shaded from direct sunlight (remember they are forest plants). Water them when the compost begins to feel dry. Repot if necessary, possibly every year.

June – mid-September. Put them outdoors in a shady spot for their summer holiday. This will harden their stems. Protect them from slugs.

Mid-September – mid-November. This is the pre-flowering period. Keep the plants in a cool place and on the dry side until flower buds form. Then increase the watering and move carefully to a warmer spot before the buds become too big.

If you buy or are given a Christmas cactus this year or have one in the house that refuses to flower, just follow these rules and it will produce a great display for you next year.