Is your Christmas cactus lush and healthy and ready to be pruned? Take those Christmas cactus cuttings and make new plants. The dependable, showy Christmas cactus is among my favourite houseplants. I remember my grandmother had one that bloomed each year. Perhaps that’s what inspired me to make sure I have one in the house each holiday season.
There’s something about seeing those wee little buds appear at the end of the “leaves” that fills me with hope and excitement. Sometimes it’s probably because I feel so amazed that a plant that’s been rather neglected manages to bloom. (My green thumb is more in its element outdoors.) For indoor plants, I’m starting to catch on to achieving that delicate balance between overwatering and underwatering, while paying close attention to the plant’s environment (light, air, etc.).
Could your Christmas cactus cuttings be from a Thanksgiving cactus? (And does it matter?)
The term Christmas cactus is more of a North American plant name because of the time of year when the plant blooms indoors. The plant belongs to the Schlumbergera family, of which there are about six to nine species. They’re epiphytic plants native to the rainforests of Brazil, and typically bloom around May.
In the last few years, there have been a lot of articles explaining the difference between a Thanksgiving cactus and a Christmas cactus. And it all has to do with bloom time and leaf shape (it’s easier to refer to them as leaves, though they’re actually flat stems).
There has been so much hybridization over the years, the lines about varieties have become a bit blurred. The Thanksgiving cactus is Schlumbergera truncate, also known as a crab cactus, because of the claw-like, serrated edge of the leaves. It blooms around U.S. Thanksgiving in November. The Christmas cactus, Schlumbergera x buckleyi, has more rounded, scalloped leaves and blooms in December. It is an 1800s-era cross between S. truncate and S. russelliana.
I think it’s worth noting that since Thanksgiving arrives much earlier in Canada (early October), both Thanksgiving and Christmas cacti seem to get the Christmas stamp. I recently purchased one and the plant tag clearly says Christmas cactus, but it looks like a Thanksgiving cactus (sometimes they have both in the description).
A cool environment and shorter days stimulate flowering, so greenhouses can also manipulate bloom time for retail sales. Thanksgiving cactus blooms can be delayed. Confused yet? Whatever you purchase, it’s likely to be some type of Schlumbergera hybrid. And the plant care requirements are pretty much the same all around.
Taking Christmas cactus cuttings
After your plant has finished flowering, around the end of the year, you can prune it before the new growth begins around springtime. You can trim off up to two thirds of your plant. Don’t worry about trimming too much off unless you feel it’s overgrown. The stem nodes of a Christmas cactus look like interlocking pieces. Simply take a sharp pair of pruning snips and carefully trim between the stem nodes. You can also twist and bend the nodes until a piece breaks off. I use the snips to avoid damaging the plant.
Post-flowering time is also when you can add fertilizing your original plant to your houseplant fertilizing schedule. Christmas cacti don’t need a lot of fertilizer, but it can help stimulate the plant’s new growth throughout the year, and encourage the following year’s blooms. You can use a liquid organic fertilizer when watering, or add an organic granular fertilizer to the soil’s surface in the plant container.
Once you’ve taken your plant cuttings, leave them out on a piece of newspaper in indirect light for a few days. This will allow the cut made from the snips to heal, forming a callous that will prevent the cutting from rotting. You’re now ready to plant.
Planting Christmas cactus cuttings
You’ll want to grab a small four- or five-inch pot. I like to use terracotta pots because they have holes in the bottom. Christmas and Thanksgiving cacti roots don’t like to be wet. Make sure whatever pot you choose has a hole in the bottom and a dish to catch the water. Fill your pot with indoor potting soil formulated for cacti. This soil mix will help the pot to drain well after each watering. Also, never allow your Christmas cactus plants to sit in water.
Push each healed plant cutting gently into the soil, so that the lower quarter or third of a leaf pad is buried (about half an inch or just over one centimetre). Depending on the size of your pot, you can probably manage to plant about three or four cuttings. It usually takes a couple of weeks for the cutting to develop roots.
You can also try rooting Christmas cactus in water. Simply use a glass and fill so that just the bottom of the lowest leaf pad is sitting in water. The great thing about this method is you can see when the roots have grown and your cutting is ready to be replanted. Once the roots have developed on your cutting, you can plant your cutting in soil, using the instructions described above.
Caring for your new plants
Be careful not to overwater new cuttings growing in soil. You may even want to use a mister to moisten the top layer of soil until the plants have become established. Then you can set up a regular watering schedule. Be sure the soil dries out between each watering. Check about once a week.
Christmas and Thanksgiving cacti do well in east- or west-facing windows, but with indirect sunlight. Direct sun can bleach the stems.
Your little seedlings should start to put on growth throughout the summer, and will hopefully flower for you in November or December. Blooming is stimulated by the lower light from the shorter days of fall.
When you see those telltale buds, it’s a good idea to leave the plant be, so the conditions remain exactly the same. Sometimes moving a Christmas cactus to another area of the house can disrupt the blooms, causing those promising little buds to shrivel up and fall off.
As I mentioned in the intro, I find houseplants can be finicky. I’m paying much closer attention these days to where I place my plants in my home. The House Plant Journal website is a great resource for figuring out light levels and other houseplant issues. The owner Darryl Cheng has also written a book about the subject called The New Plant Parent.