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Agricultural News: Cultivating Joy – Christmas Cactus

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   Christmas is one of my most favorite times of the year. It has always been a time of large family gatherings, great food, fun, laughter while celebrating the birth of Jesus. But this year, things look different, as I would imagine they do for you as well. We’ve all been hit hard in one way, form, or fashion this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, which makes the holidays particularly hard. And while it is easy to focus on the negatives, I encourage you to focus on the positives. Apart from your family, what brings you joy? Identify and cultivate those things that bring you joy! 

   For many of you, house plants and gardening bring joy. But did you know there are physical AND psychological benefits of plants and gardening? Some studies have shown indoor plants boost air quality, improve one’s mood, relieve stress and anxiety, prolong attention span, and boost self- esteem. I feel like right now we could all use a little dose of each of those things!  

   A very popular plant this time of year is the Christmas cactus. It is such a beautiful plant! However, I often hear people have trouble getting Christmas cactus to thrive and/or bloom. So, here are some helpful tips to consider when caring for your Christmas cactus:

•Your soil medium matters: this plant thrives in well-drained soils rich in organic material. Don’t use sand-based mixes intended for desert cacti. Instead, use a combination of peat-based houseplant mix blended in equal parts with a bark-based orchid mix. Pine bark fines may also be used in lieu of the orchid mix. The “perk” of this mix is that it allows for good water retention AND great drainage.

•Allow your cactus bright but indirect filtered light during the summer. Too much direct light can damage the plant.

•Ensure your pot has hole(s) to allow for drainage, water thoroughly, then let excess water drain completely before returning the pot to its saucer/decorative container. Root rot is the most common and major disease of the Christmas cactus which can be mitigated by not overwatering.  

•Keep the soil media evenly moist during the active growing season (Spring-Summer). If you want to set flower buds in the fall, allow the plant to go dry between watering.

•To encourage flower bud formation in late summer, slowly begin to decrease the amount of water, letting the mix dry out between watering. Flower formation occurs under the shortened days and cooler nights of fall.

•If outdoors: Christmas cactus plants can handle night time temps of 40 degrees F, but be sure to bring them indoors once temperatures begin to drop below 40 degrees F. 

•If indoor year-round: find a place that gets cool (55-65 degrees F) where it can be in total darkness for 13 hours each night (the cooler the night, the shorter the required total darkness duration will be). If night time temperatures are above 70 degrees F, 15 hours of total darkness is recommended. 

•Once new growth starts from the branch tips (usually late winter-early spring), begin to fertilize and keep fertilizing through the summer months. (DO NOT over fertilize—this can damage the root system.  Always fertilize according to the product label.)

•Christmas cactus can grow well when pot bound for a couple years! But, when it is time to move it to a larger pot, prune back the plant and replant in a slightly larger container (ex. 6 inch to an 8 inch).

•Have you experienced flower drop on your Christmas cactus? If so, possible causes could be excessive flower set, sudden temperature changes (ex. drafts), amount of light, or moisture level (too much or too little). If possible, try not to move your plant to another location when buds are present or flowers are open.

   I hope this Christmas season is filled with peace, love, and joy. Reflect on all of your blessings, identify and cultivate the things that bring you joy, love your neighbor as yourself, stay safe, and celebrate the Greatest Gift of all. Merry Christmas!

   Christmas Cactus tips adapted from “Christmas Cactus” by Mary Lewnes Albrecht, professor emerita, UT Department of Plant Sciences. Photo by M. Albrecht, courtesy UTIA. 

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