Cacti For Christmas

These Brazil-native houseplants show their true colors just in time for the holidays.

by Dawn Combs
PHOTO: Peas/Flickr

Christmas is almost upon us, and our family calendar is filled with school parties, gift exchanges and holiday to-do’s. My husband, in a festive mood while he shopped for our groceries, picked up a few plants, as well. I came into the kitchen to find a large Christmas cactus (Schlumbergera) taking up most of the real estate on the counter. We already have one, but this was a different color, so he couldn’t resist it.

Christmas cacti are distinctive from what you find in the desert because they’re actually a rainforest variety originating in Brazil. They can be either epiphytic—meaning they live in the canopy on tree branches—or lithophytic— meaning they grow on stones. There are six different species, four hybrids and many, many cultivars that have been created over the years by a human desire to use this plant for its decorative blooms in greenhouse culture.

Both of my cacti are S. truncata, so far as I can tell, because they have the clawed leaf pads, which earned this plant the common name “crab cactus.” The other big group you’re likely to see for sale at your grocery is S. x buckleyi, which instead of claws has smooth-sided leaf pads.

There are hundreds of varieties of Schlumbergera.

My original cactus is a bit of an odd duck. It blooms at both Thanksgiving and Christmas. They’re really only meant to bloom for one or the other. Typically if you’ve got one that blooms on Thanksgiving it’s S. x buckleyi and on Christmas it’s S. truncata.

Either way, the Christmas cactus has been a tradition in my household for many years. Although it seems that there may not be any more of a connection with Christmas than the fact that the growers in Europe have purposely cultivated these beauties to bloom during Christmas time, here are a couple of stories that tie these houseplants to the holiday season.

An Improbable Bolivian Missionary Story

One story suggests that the blooms of the Christmas cactus to a Bolivian missionary. At Christmas time, the missionary was becoming uncertain that the locals were hearing his message. As he prayed in front of a bare alter, the villagers came carrying beautiful, blooming boughs of Christmas cactus that they had collected from the jungle to decorate the chapel. While this is a lovely story, it doesn’t quite work. Schlumbergera are found in Bolivia, but they would be blooming in May rather than December in the southern hemisphere.

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Down Under

As another nice story goes, in the Southern hemisphere folks who don’t have access to evergreens decorate the Christmas cactus instead of a tree. This tradition can be verified, but it is not actually the Schlumbergera that they decorate.

Making Your Christmas Cactus Bloom

Christmas cacti originate from the rain forests of Brazil.

If you’re like me, you’ll have a member of this genus in your home every year. I don’t care which color it blooms. There is just something so cheery about the brightly colored blooms contrasting with the succulent foliage. If you’re having trouble getting yours to bloom, there is a simple solution: Next year, set it outside on the deck in partial shade and leave it alone. When the first frost threatens, bring it in and begin to water it on a regular basis. I promise you’ll be rewarded with beautiful blooms throughout the holiday season.

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