by Connie Oswald Stofko
Jeff Wilson, who has a Christmas cactus that is probably more than 85 years old, shares some tips with us on how to care for these wonderful indoor plants.
We met Wilson and Luis Martinez on Garden Walk Buffalo where they shared their ideas for shade gardening.
Wilson’s oldest Christmas cactus is a plant they call “Grandma” because it came from Wilson’s maternal grandmother. However, it had originally been owned by her mother, Wilson’s great-grandmother.
Grandma is the fussiest of Wilson’s half dozen or so Christmas cactus, he said. One year it got just one or two blossoms, but last year it bloomed after Thanksgiving until his grandmother’s birthday in May.
Before we get to the growing tips, let’s address the question of timing. Christmas cactuses don’t necessarily bloom at Christmas. A couple of Wilson’s plants, pictured here, have been blooming since before Halloween. Others are budding and will begin to bloom in the next few weeks. He has had Christmas cactus blooming at Easter.
So how did these plants, part of the Schlumbergera genus of cactus, get dubbed Christmas cactus if they might bloom anytime from fall to spring? I’ve read it’s because the plant is introduced for sale in Europe and North America at Christmastime. In some places they’re sold at Thanksgiving, so people refer to them as Thanksgiving cactus.
If you had a greenhouse, you might be able to control conditions precisely and get it to bloom right at Christmas. For most of us, keeping the plant healthy and getting it to bloom at some point during the year means we’ve been successful.
To get your Christmas cactus to bloom, you want a cool space with indirect light, Wilson said, adding that a three-season room would be perfect.
He keeps his Christmas cactuses and other plants in a space off his living room. Light is coming in the tall window and balcony door, but it’s not direct light– These are north-facing windows. There are no lamps or lights in that area, either.
The area is cool. Wilson and Martinez live in an old house, built in 1915, and while they winterize the windows, the windows might not be as energy-efficient as modern windows. A radiator is nearby, but the area remains between 62 and 69 degrees Fahrenheit during the winter.
Wilson said his cactuses seem to bud with the first cold snap before they turn on the heat. If your living areas are too warm and sunny, find a cool, dark place to set your Christmas cactus in order to trigger its blooming. Wilson noted that his Christmas cactuses bloomed early in 2006 because they lost power and had no heat for a week after the October Storm.
Drainage is important; a Christmas cactus will rot if it gets too wet, he said. You need lighter potting soil. If the soil gets compacted, it won’t drain well.
Wilson said another trick for getting your Christmas cactus to bloom is to keep it rootbound. He had his Grandma plant in the same pot his grandmother used, but needed to repot it into a heavier stoneware pot so it wouldn’t tip over. The new pot was slightly larger than the original one and Wilson said the plant didn’t bloom again until it had filled in the pot.
To help your plant keep its shape, he suggests turning the pot. However, once the plant is blooming, he won’t touch it. If you disturb the plant the flowers may fall off.
Wilson uses a liquid fertilizer once a month or when he remembers to fertilize. He won’t fertilize when the plants are in bloom for fear that he mess them up.
His grandmother used to tap a nail into the soil. Why? It had something to do with iron, Wilson said. He keeps some decorations in his pots that are on metal spikes. Maybe that helps. If not, it certainly doesn’t seem to hurt.
by Connie Oswald Stofko