How to maintain a healthy Christmas cactus
December 09, 2011

The Christmas cactus is a popular holiday gift plant. But this plant is also the subject of frequent debate among gardeners with regard to care, maintenance and how to get them to re-bloom.

"While they are indeed a cacti, they are actually tropical plants that thrive in conditions that we don't usually associate with cactus," said Patrick Byers, horticulture specialist with University of Missouri Extension.

A Christmas cactus will do best in a sunny window away from hot drafts (like heat vents), according to Byers.

"Hot drafts cause the buds to drop. Try to find a window in a cooler room - the blossoms will hold longer," Byers said.

Watering is another tricky subject with Christmas cactus. While in bloom, Byers recommends watering the plant when the top inch of the soil is dry.

"I use my finger, and stick it into the soil up to my knuckle to check. Just don't over water the plant," said Byers.

When the blossoms drop, the plant begins a resting period. During this time keep the plant on the dry side, but water it if the leaves shrivel. When new growth resumes, Byers says it is time to resume more frequent watering.

What about care during the summer? "Your Christmas cactus will thrive outdoors, but be sure to place the plant in a shady or semi-shady spot. Then water as needed to keep the plant from shriveling," said Byers.

The trick to getting this plant to blossom again is long day (12 hours of darkness) and short days.

"This happens naturally in the fall, as long as you don't keep your plant under artificial light," said Byers.

He says exposing a Christmas cactus to cool temperatures (50-55F) will also encourage blossoming; leave the plant outside as temperatures cool in the fall.

"Bring the plant indoors gradually when temps get too cold, and keep in a cool, bright window. You will be rewarded with a lovely burst of flowers in time for the holidays," Byers concluded.

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