You may be aware of the Poinsettia’s interesting Central American heritage but there’s another tropical plant that has found its way into the American holiday scene…the Christmas Cactus. The ancestors of our modern Christmas cacti are native to the forests and jungles of South America. Although a true cactus, the Christmas cactus seems to break all the rules of cactus culture.

While we grow our Christmas Cacti in pots, in its native environment the Christmas Cactus are epiphytes. In other words, these are cacti that grow in trees! These forest or jungle cacti grow roots into the bark of their host tree and their only access to moisture and nutrients is from rain and droppings that fall from above. When we think of cacti, we automatically think of the desert and bright sunlight but these forest cacti always grow under a canopy of trees and are never exposed to full sun. The environment that these cacti have adapted to is that of the warm, humid jungle with sunlight filtered through the canopy of the forest. Its habit of flowering just before the winter solstice makes it a natural for display during the holiday season.

The shortening days of September and October are what trigger the flowering cycle. The only way to stop the flowering cycle is by exposing the plant to too much artificial light in the evening after the sun has gone down.

Christmas cacti don’t need to be repotted very often but when they do, they won’t want a sandy cactus soil but will prefer to be in a soil containing sphagnum. This type of soil would normally be used for orchids, bromeliads or other epiphytic plants.

Remember, this is a forest cactus and so will not want to be placed in a very sunny location. Feed it a general purpose soluble food while it grows all summer long.

During August, stop feeding it and during September start keeping it drier as well. This will prepare the plant to respond properly to the shortening days with the best possible display of beautiful flowers. You can leave it in natural light well into October. When you bring it indoors, make sure it is in a bright room that will be dark after the sun goes down. Like the poinsettia, incidental light from a reading lamp can be enough to keep the Christmas cactus from flowering.

These forest cacti tend to be long lived. I remember one that grew in the window of a barber shop in Chatham, NY that was huge and had apparently been in the family for over a hundred years!  It is a living heirloom.  Thanks for the read.


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