Trowel & Error

A timing of its own

The Christmas cactus never checks the calendar

By Nancy Crowe
We have a forward-thinking, or maybe just warped, sense of time in the monthly magazine world. We plan, design and write summer in the depths of winter. We’re all about back-to-school when school’s barely out for the summer. And while we’re beginning to put together the December issue, only a few leaves have fallen.

The plant world has its own timing, with every seed, sprout, leaf and flower knowing exactly what to do and when. There’s no planning ahead and no last-minute crunch. Plants don’t care about deadlines — they just read the signals they receive from the light, air and soil and respond accordingly.

Such is the case with the Christmas cactus. Sure, the nurseries know how to get them all blooming when they hit the stores around Thanksgiving. Once they’ve found homes, they kick back a bit. The one I’ve had for two or three years might more accurately be called a Thanksgiving or Valentine’s Day cactus. During these months, I’ll welcome the bloom whenever it comes.

Like the poinsettia, the Christmas cactus is a popular holiday gift. It looks like something you’d see deep in the jungle, or at least in the tropical garden of the Foellinger-Freimann Botanical Conservatory. While it’s no evergreen, the Christmas cactus is tougher than it looks. Keep it happy, and it will bloom a couple of times a year. Maybe more.

My Christmas cactus is happiest in the south-facing window of the dining area. If I put it under a grow light upstairs, it will politely refrain from wilting, but it won’t bloom. If I put it in a south-facing window in another room — same story. The porch where it spends the summer is amenable; everyone likes fresh air. But like a cat with a favorite sleeping spot, it has decided only that window will do.

Most of us know someone who has kept a Christmas cactus alive and blooming for decades. Chances are, half of these folks have little or no idea how they did it and would say they let nature take its course. Nevertheless, here are a few tips:

•    Place the Christmas cactus in a sunny window in the winter and a shaded or semi-shaded location outdoors in the summer.

•    Water when the top inch or so of soil feels dry.

•    When the plant is finished blooming, encourage branching by removing a few sections of each stem; pinch them off or cut them off with a sharp, sterile knife or shears.

•    To get it to bloom for Christmas, place the plant in a cool, dark closet from 8 p.m. to 8 a.m. nightly starting in mid-October. To get it good and mad at you, forget and leave it in there. Simply placing the plant where it will receive no artificial light at night can be sufficient motivation for setting buds. I’ve been letting mine stay outside as far into autumn as it safely can, and once it’s in I don’t bother moving it in and out of any dark closets. It blooms anyway (when it darn well pleases).

•    Try taking cuttings. I had no luck rooting them in soil, so I’d try water next time.

•    Enjoy your Christmas cactus, and the season, whenever it shows its colors.

Nancy Crowe

Posted Thu, 12/01/2011 - 3:26 pm