The Christmas cactus is a perennial favourite of many people

Christmas cactus, Schlum­bergera truncate, is named for its blooming season.

The South American beauty blooms October to December. Native to Brazilian rainforests, those cacti can be identified by dark green, flat, oval, pointed stems.

The name Christmas cactus is a bit of a misnomer, as it is a succulent, and not a desert dweller. The term originated from 19th century French bot­anist Charl­es Lemaire, and is named after plant collector, Frédéric Schlum­berger.

The Christmas cactus sold by floral retailers is a hybrid of two different species of Schlum­bergera bred in Eng­land about 150 years ago. It became popular in Victorian England. Hybridiza­tion over the past century resulted in many new varieties.

It is not unusual for 50-year old plants to outlive their present owners, being passed generation to generation. The long-living plants will develop what appears to be bark and reach a size of several feet with hundreds of blossoms.

For great blooms:

Avoid temperature extremes – keep away from draughts and direct sun. They are best in the warm temperatures. Protect from hot air vents or cold air blasts from doors or windows.

Avoid movement – they are very fragile, especially be­tween the joints of the plant, and can easily be broken by moving the plant around.

Water regularly – poke a finger into the top first centimetre of soil. Do not allow the soil to become too dry. During the summer, keep the soil continually moist. When the fall arrives, water only enough to prevent wilting. After the plant finishes bloom­ing, stop water for six weeks.

Soil – must be well-drained.

Prune – gently after bloom­ing, to encourage it to branch out.

Adequate sunlight – avoid direct sun. The plants can be taken outside during the sum­mer; place them in shade or partial shade. (I place them under a group of maple trees every summer. I had excellent results with indirect sunlight and rain. They can adapt to low light levels and will produce more blooms when exposed to higher light intensity.)

Repot – every two to three years to avoid becoming root-bound.

Fertilizer – when new growth appears in the spring, apply a weak solution of liquid houseplant fertilizer every two to three weeks.

Propagation – use stem cut­tings. Take the cuttings from the second joint of each tip. Place them in moist peat and sand mixture or just root the cuttings in water. Place the planted cuttings in indirect sunlight and water regularly. It should show new growth in four to six weeks.

Bud dropping – is caused by over watering or when it is too cold or too hot.

Getting to flower – is related to day length and night tem­peratures. The temperature must be 13 to 15°C for a six week period. If temperatures remain in that range, buds will develop regardless of day length. If temperatures get above 15°C, 13 hours of darkness will be needed. This can be done by placing the plant in a completely dark room or closet.

Once buds form, stop fertilizing and only water enough to keep the leaves from becoming wilted. Keep in normal light and temperatures, evenly moist and fertilize every other week.

Caring for a Christmas cac­tus is not complex or time-consuming. Owners will find that they are easy to grow with a little knowledge and persis­tence.