The Christmas cactus is a long lived plant with flat, segmented stems. Most of the year its appearance is fairly unassuming. Some potted green in the corner of the living room or parked under a tree in the back yard.
Around Christmas, however, something magical happens.
With care, this plain looking plant will blossom with flowers of red, white, pink, purple or orange. Because of this festive seasonal bloom, the Christmas cactus is a tradition in many European and North American homes during the holidays.
But the beauty of the hardy Christmas cactus isn’t limited to just the holiday season. Jeanne Dombcik, an Ohio transplant living in Raleigh, NC, tells the tale of her fifty-year-old Christmas cactus and the family ties it symbolizes.
“So it’s 1985 and I’m staying with my grandmother Gladys Browngardt in Sag Harbor, New York, working on my cousin Hank’s farm stand,” Jeanne recalls. “She had this Christmas cactus that sat outside under the pine trees when I was there and I took care of it all summer.”
Jeanne’s grandmother passed away that summer.
“After my grandmother died, all of my 24 first cousins came to the house to help clear it out. When it came my turn to decide what to take, I thought about it. I decided that what I really wanted was that Christmas cactus I had been keeping alive all summer.”
“I got a cardboard box, my dad helped me pack the Christmas cactus up and I drove it from Sag Harbor to Cleveland, Ohio, where I took cuttings of it and rooted them. I sent them back to Sag Harbor to live with all of my cousins and aunts and uncles. Now whenever I go to visit their houses, I see a piece of my grandmother’s original Christmas cactus.”
Jeanne still passes along cuttings from her grandmother’s plant, which continues to thrive today.
Caring for Christmas Cactus
Christmas cactus thrives in bright, but indirect sunlight. Keep it near a window when indoors or shaded by trees if kept outdoors in warmer months.
Despite its name, the Christmas cactus is not a desert plant, but rather has its origins in the tropical rain forests of South America. If you live in a dry climate, make sure a source of humidity like a shallow tray of water is kept nearby. The plant will not tolerate dry soil and requires regular watering (done at the base of the plant).
Conversely, too much water will cause leaves to spot and fall off.
Allow the top layer of soil to dry completely before watering.
Ensuring a Christmas Bloom
In fall, night temperatures around 50-55 degrees will trigger Christmas cactus to form flower buds. A carefully monitored balance of darkness and sunlight will give you beautiful blooms in time for the holidays. Six to eight weeks before Christmas, place the plant in a completely dark space where the temperature is 60 degrees (such as a closet or garage) for 12 hours each night. Be sure to bring the plant out to a sunny spot for the other 12 hours each day. Water only when the top inch or so of the soil feels dry, and you should get flowers for the holiday.
A few weeks after the flowers have faded, prune stems back to encourage new growth.
Start your own tradition by sharing your own Christmas cactus. By transplanting a cutting of at least three stem segments into a small pot of soil (preferably taken from the pot of the parent plant). Bury at least one segment. Care for the cutting as a mature plant and it should take root in 4 to 6 weeks.
The day after sharing her story with me, Jeanne dropped by my office bearing a gift. A small cutting from her grandmother’s Christmas cactus.
My own little piece of a holiday tradition that lives on all year long.