It was a very “Rocky” sort of moment. If ever a plant could bring out my inner Russian boxer, it is most certainly this Christmas cactus. Last December I brought it home from my local grocery store. At just $2.99, it was no big investment. How hard could it be, right? Covered in fuchsia flowers and dozens of buds, I figured this would make an excellent addition to my growing collection of houseplants. Its “cactus” status screamed low maintenance. VERY misleading. Bathed in ignorance and weakened by my longing for flowers, I envisioned it fitting right in with my other thrive-on-neglect comrades. How could I go wrong?
Who knows how long the thing sat in the grocery store before it sucked me in. No doubt it was already suffering from the trauma of shipping and exposure to low light and dry air. Compared to its cozier duds in some greenhouse probably in Florida, the grocery must have been the plant’s idea of pure hell. No doubt it was hoping for a plant mom that knew its needs. I wasn’t that girl. At least not yet.
So I wrapped it up and protected it from the cold in my unzipped coat (zipping would have crushed the flowers) as I made the trek from the check-out to the car. Within days of its arrival, the buds began to fall off. Slightly offended, I stood over this tiny plant in the 3-inch plastic pot and uttered in my best Russian accent, “If he dies, he dies.” It was very Ivan Drago, only I wasn’t sweaty, I’m not Russian and my opponent was a plant. Game on.
Bruised But Not Beaten
As I began researching the solution, I discovered that the Christmas cactus isn’t the prickly dry-air desert dweller we commonly envision when we hear “cactus.” But it’s a close cousin, native to the lush forests of the Organ Mountains in Brazil. It likes humidity, something most cold climate homes in December lack. In fact, bud drop is almost inevitable without it.
I created a little humidity tray and set it beneath the plant, being careful not to allow the pot to sit in the water. A plastic saucer full of pea gravel and refilled with water as it dries out is enough to keep everyone happy. A humidifier would work too but this was a more cost-effective approach. And it worked! I got the buds to set (I’ll explain how in a later post), stay put and things are looking festive once again.
Other environmental stressors like drafts, changes in lighting, over or underwatering and sudden relocation can cause bud drop too.
I water when the top inch of soil is dry, and more frequently in the spring and summer when it’s in its active growth phase and living outside on the patio where it gets morning sun. It’s gotten considerably bigger. I’m winning. Finally.
Holiday cacti – Christmas, Thanksgiving and Easter – are members of a small group of plants belonging to the Schlumbergera genus. Occasionally, you may see them labeled by an older name, Zygocactus. They’re epiphytes, preferring to dangle from branches or chill in tree crotches in their native habitat rather than set roots in soil. Roots are for clinging to trees and branches. Special leaf openings, called stoma, absorb moisture and nutrients from the air.
Their desire for bright, indirect light makes them perfect for house dwelling, provided their other needs are met. Perhaps most importantly, adequate root exposure. I potted mine in a fast draining cactus soil mix but I’ve read they can also be grown in orchid mixes. Both mediums allow air to circulate around the roots.
Knowing where a plant comes from helped me figure out how to make it feel more welcome and willing to do its thing. As my Christmas cactus throws out more buds and others begin to open, I’m hungry for more. Yellow would be nice. Or maybe white.
Do you grow any of the holiday cacti?
Looking for more holiday houseplants? Check out my post on poinsettias.