Christmas Cactus, On Time at Last!

or almost on time, anyway. Given that it doesn’t usually get its movie together until February, I’m not inclined to be too fussy,.

The Christmas cactus, 12/25/08

The Christmas cactus, 12/25/08

As you can tell from its less than splendid shape, I have mixed feelings about it. Or not mixed, really, since feelings are the only reason we keep the thing. It was a gift from our dear friend Peter’s mother. After she died we kept it for him, and now that he’s gone too we keep it for him all the more. Plus it’s the plant froggy came in on (Tree frog. Size of a quarter. Adorable. Discovered in midwinter, it lived free in the greenhouse until spring).

So the feelings are fine. It’s the rational part that makes me wish for a harder heart; even the most gorgeous Christmas cactus is a plant I can live without.

They may not be true cacti (they’re tropical epiphytes) but they have the same hard-shelled rigidity, and although the branch drape can be pretty graceful it isn’t graceful prettily – at least not in my opinion. There’s a sort of gaudy impressiveness to the humongous ones, big as Volkswagons, that are competitive staples at spring flower shows. But it’s the impressiveness of Las Vegas, not something you’d want in the living room.

Saying this I stand back and take cover, knowing that Christmas cacti are hugely popular – they were among the most asked about plants in my years at the Times Q&A. On the other hand, many of the questioners did mention that their Cc.’s came from neighbors, friends or beloved relatives, so we might actually be discussing the botanical equivalent of fruitcake.

Heaven knows they’re equally indestructible. Ours, for instance, gets left to its own devices all summer while we’re in Maine. It stays behind in the Hudson Valley getting by on rainfall, a product of which there is usually too little interspersed with too much. And although it needs well-drained, very porous soil – aka reasonably frequent repotting – it has routinely been left to languish unrefreshed until it finally looks so unhealthy I can no longer ignore it.

On the good side, my casual attitude means it doesn’t suffer from overfeeding. We are careful to leave it out as long as possible in fall – a good spate of 40 degree nights does a lot to make it feel like flowering. And we have a cool side porch where it can spend the long nights in darkness needed for successful bud set.

Christmas cactus, all budded up

Christmas cactus with survivor buds

But then we bring it in and put it in the upstairs hall, one of the coolest spots we’ve got but not cool enough to prevent substantial bud drop. S’ok; a sprinkling of those lurid flowers is plenty.

Oh, about those hours of darkness: expert advice demands anywhere from 12 to 17 of them, for anywhere from 3 to 6 weeks. Our plant does fine with about 13 hours for 5 weeks or so, and those hours aren’t totally dark – the neighbors’ porch lights shine through trees outside and the light from Bill’s office comes (dimly) through the curtained window in the door. Cold, though. By the time the Cc takes up residence we’re using that porch as a refrigerator.

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  • Anna Iredale Said,

    “the botanical equivalent of fruitcake”…how true! I have a fairly sad looking Christmas cactus that I hold on to because a dear man at my church actually went home from the plant sale and brought it back to sell to me. Now I know why his wife wasn’t upset about it. So many times I have wondered if it belongs in the compost pile but I can’t let it go…

  • leslie Said,

    Gee, Anna, I don’t know if I’m glad to hear my suspicions confirmed or not. In any event, you have my sympathies and I’ll bet those of many others. Please let us all know if you find a way to cure the “can’t let go” syndrome – when it comes to houseplant diseases that one’s probably the worst.

  • Belinda Said,

    I love my Christmas Cactus, I have a white & pink one and I can’t wait until it gets bigger.

    Welcome Belinda,
    Glad your plant is performing well. It should get bigger pretty quickly if fed and watered correctly – more in the growing season, less in the winter when there is less light.

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