Thomas J. Story
Christmas cactus can grow on you in more ways than one. Sure, the plants just get bigger and better every year. They pump out masses of delicate jungle flowers in rosy red, white, orange, pink, and pale yellow, depending on the variety, just in time for the holidays. And although they're true cactus, their spines are so tiny and soft that you'll scarcely notice them - and never get pricked.
But the plants are also incredibly forgiving, blooming every year on very little care. They can live for 25 years or more. Try growing one, and you'll discover why seasoned gardeners often treat Christmas cactus like a favorite pet or a living-room celebrity. Ready to start? Plants are available this month at garden centers and grocery stores.
Caring for Christmas cactus
A cool, bright spot out of direct sun is best for these tropical epiphytes that grow naturally in rain-forest trees. Keep one on display near an east-facing window, and it won't know it ever left the jungle.
Before watering, check soil moisture with your index finger. Water thoroughly when the top half-inch of soil dries out.
As new leaves appear or when flower buds start to swell, apply a liquid fertilizer formulated for houseplants every 7 to 10 days until the growth or flowering cycle ends.
Every year or so, gently pull the plant out of its container and check the roots. When roots start to mat where they touch the inside of the pot, move the plant into a container that's an inch or 2 larger in diameter. Rough up the matted roots with a knife or fork before you repot.
After the holidays
When flowering is over, set the cactus outdoors if you live in a frost-free climate; in cold climates, keep it indoors until weather warms in late spring. Next November, start initiating December's bloom: Put your Christmas cactus in a place where nights are cool (50°-55°) and there's no artificial light. After flower buds form, you can stop the cool/dark treatment and start fertilizing for a strong three-week bloom cycle.