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Christmas Cacti: A Bit Of Brazil In Winter

Photo by: Shane Bugeja

I never met my great grandmother, but I heard some great stories about her. One of my favorites included her baking skills, where her famous divinity cookies inspired some unholy shoving at church. Unfortunately, I will never be able to taste one of those brawl-inducing treats, but one tangible legacy she carried on was her Christmas cactus (Schlumbergera species).

My aunt, mom, and grandmother all have a cutting of the original mother plant. All cacti are currently alive, despite my mother’s best efforts with hers. Christmas cacti rival peonies for longevity, as the family plant is well over 40 years old. To give you an idea exactly how long they can thrive, a specimen from North Dakota spent at least 111 years without keeling over.

These plants are also resilient to disease and pests, and can tolerate some neglect. Most issues arise from overwatering, as is the case for most succulents and cacti species. In general, you will water only when the soil dries thoroughly. On occasion, fungal rots may rear their heads, but using sterilized potting soil coupled with adequate drainage should head off these problems.

One reason these plants are so robust lies in their homeland, southeastern Brazil. Wild Christmas cacti thrive in rocky, well-drained areas underneath trees. Specifically, these plants are located along the Serra do Mar, a Brazilian mountain range that juts up against the coastal city of Rio de Janeiro.

You may notice that a Christmas cactus may require a bit more water than typical cacti we may find in the desert. Due to the unique meshing of ocean, rainforest, and mountain, these plants have built up a tolerance to high humidity.

Another reason Christmas cacti are so popular lie in their distinctive, fuchsia colored blooms. The bright color is very visible to hummingbirds, who take out nectar from the long flowers and aid in pollination. Most Christmas cacti are not self-compatible, and thus cannot produce seeds without the aid of these creatures.

Contrary to popular belief, the red/pink color of the flowers is not a requirement for the birds to visit. True, their vision is highly tuned to the red side of the light spectrum, but the tasty reward from the cactus is the main driver, not its color.

Similar to soybeans or mums, Christmas cacti start their flowering when night length increases and temperature drops. While technically a rainforest, it can still get a bit chilly up there in the coastal mountains in Brazil, and at around 55 to 65 °F flower budding starts. In Minnesota, we have plenty of nighttime to spare in late fall/winter, and a cactus that is near a wintry window can easily hit that temperature range. True to its name, it is typically holiday time when enough darkness meets with enough cold and the plant blooms.

Many of these guidelines are general and may not apply to your own particular variety. Other aspects such as soil nutrient levels also may play a role. My own store-bought Christmas cactus seems to bloom whenever it feels like it, whether fir wreaths hang on doorways or not.

A Christmas cactus is a great houseplant with few frustrating quirks. During the dreary, frigid times of winter, it can help immensely to have a dash of tropical color to brighten your house. Better still, you can share that joy with your family, hopefully for decades to come.

Works Cited:

  • Culham, A. 2015. Advent Botany 2015 – Christmas Day: The Christmas Cactus. University of Reading. Blog post.
  • McMillan, A. J. S. and Horobin, J. F. 1995. “Christmas Cacti: The Genus Schlumbergera and Its Hybrids“(p/b ed.), Sherbourne, Dorset, UK: David Hunt, ISBN 978-0-9517234-6-3
  • Moorman, G. 2016. Christmas Cactus Diseases. Penn State Extension.
  • Stein, M. 2013. “Hummingbirds See Red”. National Audubon Society. Blog post.
  • Weisenhorn, J. and Meyer, M. 2018. Holiday Cactus. University of Minnesota Extension.