Probably the most popular and wildly used Christmas flower is the poinsettia, there is however another equally charming plant that blooms for us during the Christmas season. Commonly know as Christmas cactus, or Crab cactus (Schlumbergera truncata), this is a very beautiful flowering cactus with oblong, bright green fleshy stem segments and pink, red, orange or white trumpet-shaped, narrow petaled cactus flowers to 3 inches long that hang from the tips.
The leaf like segments usually have marginal, prominent notches. The Christmas Cactus is a jungle epiphyte plant which means it grows on another plant without obtaining food from it. They are native to South East Brazil.
Christmas cactus are often confused with Thanksgiving cactus which blooms a few weeks earlier. These two varieties can be identified since on the Thanksgiving cactus the last joint on a stem has two prominent teeth. There are also the Easter cacti, (Rhipsalidopsis gaertneri) which blooms in the spring. All of these are long lived plants and grow as tall as 3 feet high and wide.
Since Christmas cacti will not tolerate temperatures below 10 degrees Celsius (50 F), they are not suitable for northern gardens but grow very well indoors or in greenhouses. They are usually easily attainable from indoor garden centers. You can take them outdoors for the summer months, in fact this can help to trigger their bloom.
In spring and summer feed with an organic fertilizer twice a month. These cacti require more water, and fertilizer than most others. Allow the soil to dry out between waterings. If you have a water softener that uses salt, water them with bottled water as they cannot tolerate salt. Around 8 weeks before Christmas give them a rest by placing in a cool spot that remains dark at night. Do not fertilize or repot at this time and water very sparingly. Gradually return your plant to warmer temperatures which will trigger your plant to bloom. Keep well watered while blooming. After all the blooms have finished, keep your cacti on the dry side until spring. Your cacti will love the sun and prefer dry air.
To keep your Christmas cactus healthy it should be re-potted every 3 or 4 years in the spring. If you want more plants you can easily propagate from stem cuttings in spring or early summer.
An easy plant to grow, Christmas cacti care is undemanding. Your cacti will be around for many years and with a little care you will be rewarded with Christmas cactus flowers every year.