Christmas Cactus_home_20091103_LAH_5353x-1Small succulent-looking plants covered with florescent  red, pink or white flowers up to three inches long are featured prominently in many stores right now. Go ahead get one. You won’t regret it. Christmas (or Thanksgiving) cactus are both beautiful and easy to grow.

Yes, they’re cactus, but these plants are native to tropical rain forests in the mountains of Brazil, where they grow on tree branches as epiphytes. That should tell you that they like to be kept somewhat moist, but never soggy. This is particularly important while the plants are in bloom. In fact, uneven watering is a main cause of blossom drop. (Another is an abrupt decrease in humidity, such as comes when you move a plant from the greenhouse to your home.) The rest of the year, they are a bit more forgiving, and will tolerate a bit of drying out. It’s always best to let the top inch of soil dry out between waterings.

Give your plant bright, indirect light., but keep it out of direct sunlight, which can  discolor or burn the leaves. Cooler temperatures are best, especially when a plant is flowering. It’s best to give your cactus a rest after bloom. Do this by withholding fertilizer, and watering just enough to keep the soil slightly moist. Then, fertilize normally during the spring and summer months.

Repotting isn’t often necessary—keeping your plant somewhat root-bound will increase bloom. If you have to repot, use a good potting mix mixed with about one-third sand added to it (sometimes called a bromeliad mix). Make sure both your potting mix and the sand are sterilized, to avoid a number of possible diseases.

While unaffected by most pests, stressed plants are susceptible to infestations of mealy bugs. If you see these white, cottony sucking insects, spray with insecticidal soap. It’s easiest to grow healthy plants, rather than attempt to cure ailing ones.

Christmas Cactus_home_20091103_LAH_5348x-1The trickiest part of growing holiday cactus is getting one to re-bloom. Bud formation is triggered by decreasing day-length. In late September or October, place the plant where it won’t get any artificial light after dark (or completely cover it). At least thirteen hours of darkness are needed every night. Make sure it still gets adequate light during the day. After about six to eight weeks, the buds will be set, and you can move the plant back to its normal spot. It should bloom between Thanksgiving and Christmas.

Exposing your plant to temperatures between 50 and 55 degrees F. will also cause buds to set, but those conditions are hard to find in most homes.

If your plant insists on blooming at another time of year, you may still be doing everything right—you might just have a different species of Schlumbergera. Plants known as Easter cactus have more rounded edges to their leaves. Their bloom comes mainly in early spring.

All holiday cactus types are easily propagated by cuttings, and make lovely gifts. Simply break off a length of stem and stick it into some potting soil. Keep slightly damp, and roots will form along the buried section of plant. Grouping several cuttings in one pot makes for a fuller specimen.

Properly cared for, holiday cactus will outlive us. That’s a pretty good return on a $5 plant investment!