Heirloom Christmas Cactus

Tough and long-lived, Christmas cactus can be passed easily from one generation to the next, blooming for family gatherings and cheering the darkening autumn days. I’ve given many cuttings of Grampa’s cactus to family and friends over the years. Someday, one of my kids or grandkids may inherit the original.

Christmas cactus bloom when nights grow longer and temperatures drop.

My grandfather let me water it carefully when I was a toddler and he proudly showed me how to count each flower bud. When the fat red buds opened, they looked like arching Roman candle fireworks or dragons spitting yellow flames. That cactus is my first plant memory and the spark that lit my own lifelong love affair with horticulture.

My grandfather, born in Vermont in 1892, was an ardent gardener. He grew vegetables and fruit for the family table, manicured a perfect postage-stamp lawn, and dearly loved his peonies and roses. To get through the long winters, he kept a few prized flowering houseplants in the window near his reading chair. I inherited his Thanksgiving cactus when I was 18. It’s lead a less-pampered life since then, but it still blooms reliably each autumn.

Some Christmas cactus (Schlumbergera) hybrids have pointy teeth on their stem segments and others have scalloped segments, depending on their parentage. Plant breeders have produced a wide range of flower colors — from deep red and hot pink to orange, yellow and white.

All hybrids naturally develop flower buds in early autumn, when the nights get long and the temperature drops to 50 to 55 degrees F. If your plants don’t set buds on their own, put them in a cool room where they will receive at least 12 hours of uninterrupted darkness each day for six to eight weeks. After the buds form, they no longer need the long-night treatment. Keep the soil slightly moist and allow it to dry between waterings.

These plants are native to tropical areas with high humidity and may drop their buds and flowers if the air is too dry or the plants are exposed to sudden cold. My grandfather put his flower pots in saucers, then set them on trays of pebbles and water to keep the humidity high in the winter. To prolong the bloom, keep the plants as cool as possible. Temperatures in the mid-50s to mid-60s are best.

Tough and long-lived, Christmas cactus can be passed easily from one generation to the next, blooming for family gatherings and cheering the darkening autumn days. I’ve given many cuttings of Grampa’s cactus to family and friends over the years. Someday, one of my kids or grandkids may inherit the original.

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13 Responses to Heirloom Christmas Cactus

  1. KJ says:

    I have cuttings from my grandmother's cactus. I can't seem to make the cuttings thrive. They are healthy, but they have no blooms and grow slowly. Any ideas?

  2. Anonymous says:

    I have two potted Christmas cactus that were my mothers. I inherited these when she died in 2001. They are always in full bloom on her birthday November 21. It is a lovely memory of her. She loved flowers and was a avid gardener until the end of her life.

  3. Anonymous says:

    I have my great grandmother's Christmas cactus which is now in full bloom. She was born on Christmas day in 1859. I have done new plants from cuttings for each of my grandchildren. With love these are VERY long lived plants.

  4. Anonymous says:

    My Christmas cactus started as a $1.99, end-of-season reject and is now approx 4 feet (yes feet) in diameter. Blooms twice a year (now and around Easter). I don't do anything special – sits in a 4 season room (Chicago) facing North with East/West light – but I definitely let it dry between waterings. Whenever a branch breaks off, I stick it back in the soil, so it has grown.

  5. Anonymous says:

    My husband brought me home a Christmas catus in 1971. We have moved it from CT to ME back to Ct and finaly to PA. I hope my children get as much joy out of seeing it bloom as I have for the past 38 years. Hopfully it will live at least another 38 years.

  6. Anonymous says:

    Anonymous wonders…

    Is there a really a difference between Thanksgiving and Christmas cactus, or are they actually the same plant (with lighting levels manipulated to produce blooms on desired holidays)?

  7. Anonymous says:

    I have had my christmas catus since 2006. It thrived so beautiful…the stalks were very thick and green, the blooms were large and vibrant. This summer, I repotted it not knowing what kind of soil to use… sandy or regular potting soil (i used miracle grow potting soil). This blooming season, most of my stalks turned purple and look wilted with wilted blooms. Any and alls suggestions are welcomed. I have not done anything different with watering or placement indoors.

  8. Anonymous says:

    I inherited my aunts Christmas cactus in 1989 after it was neglected for at least six months. It has survived, and it blooms each year between Thanksgiving and Christmas. Sometimes it blooms at other times. I love the memories it brings back each time it flowers. I haven't had much luck with cuttings to pass on to my cousins or other family members.

  9. Christmas or Thanksgiving cactus?
    We couldn't find a clear distinction between the ones that bloom at Christmas or Thanksgiving, but there's a lot of discussion out there. This post from Troy Marden names Schlumbergera bridgesii as the “Christmas cactus”:

    On the other hand, a grower's site from the Netherlands says that they are all hybrids and pretty much the same plant. http://www.schlumbergera.org/index.php?cid=65

    -Ann Whitman, Gardener's Supply

  10. I picked up a beautiful Christmas cactus with soft yellow blooms edged in pink. I am now feeling inspired to pot it up, so it will grow faster.I would love to share cuttings, I have not seen this color before.

  11. Sheri says:

    My mother passed away in 2002 and my sister got her Christmas Cactus. There were 2 of them. In 2004 I wanted cuttings so she broke off pieces of each. She put them in a ziplock bag with a wet paper towel, put that in a box and mailed it to me. My plants are now about 18″ across. One blooms in November and the other in February. The February plant is just now starting toget littlr buds.

  12. KL says:

    The best luck I have had with a Christmas cactus cutting is to put it into a small pot. They have small roots and if the pot is too big, they have to grow into it before it blooms. Don't give it too much water – cactus you know. And it needs to be in a South facing window from October until it's done blooming. They like a cooler place when they are not blooming.

  13. Anonymous says:

    THANK YOU for abeautiful tribute to your grandfather and your flower. I enjoyed reading the legacy!

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