As vibrant holiday plants begin to adorn the shelves of hardware stores, grocery stores and garden centers, consumers are attracted to the pinks, reds and whites atop deep green foliage, which add festive pops of color in winter homes. The appearance of plants like poinsettias and Christmas cacti usher in the holiday season and we love to fill our halls and entryways with their holiday cheer. But what about after the holidays?
Most of us accept the demise of these seasonal decorations once the new year begins. But, do we have to? Here are some simple guidelines to keep your poinsettias and Christmas cacti healthy and ready to shine again next year.
The best way to understand how to care for these plants is knowing where they come from and understanding the conditions in which they evolved. Both poinsettias and Christmas cacti have their origins in the tropical mountains of Central and South America. Despite the common name of Christmas cactus, neither poinsettias nor Christmas cacti are adapted to arid conditions. It is OK, even preferable, to let soils dry out somewhat before watering, but they cannot withstand long periods of dry soil. Sticking your finger an inch or two into the soil or picking up your pots to see if they are heavy or light are good, easy ways of deciding whether your plants need to be watered. Each time you water, make sure to water deeply, soaking all of the soil and making sure the excess water can run freely away from the pot, so that the soil does not stay saturated.
While poinsettias will happily take a spot by a window that gets full sun, Christmas cactus in its natural habitat lives on the trunks and branches of other plants and prefers indirect or dappled light. This might mean placing your Christmas cactus just to the side of a window or toward the middle of a room instead of right on the windowsill.
Both plants will do well in average home temperatures between 65 and 75 degrees Fahrenheit. However, avoid drastic changes in temperature, such as from a draft, a nearby door or being in the path of air from air conditioning and heating vents.
Poinsettias naturally grow as a somewhat tall and leggy shrub. In order to maintain an attractive, bushy form, cut back your poinsettia a few times during the year. In the early spring, cut your poinsettia back until about 6 inches of stem remains. Once new growth begins, you can begin fertilizing with a complete fertilizer, following the directions on the fertilizer label. Around July, remove the top of the plants, leaving four to five leaves on each stem. If the plant becomes leggy in early fall, this step can be repeated.
In order to signal color and bud production, both plants need “short day” conditions, which means 12 to 14 hours of total darkness each night. Poinsettias may require these “short days” for up to 10 weeks. This means that, beginning 10 weeks before you wish to see color, the plants will need at least 12 hours of uninterrupted darkness each night. Be aware that even a small amount of light can interrupt this process. Christmas cacti do not require as many short days, but should be grown in cooler nighttime temperatures of about 50 to 60 F to initiate bud formation. Once color begins to form on poinsettias or buds begin to form on Christmas cacti, the signaling is complete and you can leave the plants to grow in normal conditions.
Following these basic guidelines can allow you to enjoy those festive plants again next holiday season.
For more information, see UGA Extension Circular 951, “Care of Holiday and Gift Plants.”
Photo: The Christmas cactus is made up of colorful, iridescent bracts. This true cactus, minus thorns, is native to the South American rainforest.