Christmas Cactus Saved From Near Death: Garden Bloggers Bloom Day February 2016

– Posted in: What's up/blooming
22 comments

I have whined before, here and on Facebook, that some of my Christmas cacti (Schlumbergera hybrids, also called zygocacti) were failing. I got plenty of advice as a result, most of which I was already following, when I happened to stumble upon an old blog post of Matt Mattus’. In it he advised to avoid using a cactus potting mix.

Dear Reader, this was exactly what I had done before the trouble started.

I had received a sample of cactus potting mix, and I asked the sender if it was suitable for zygocacti, and that person said it was. So I had repotted my two biggest plants, a Christmas cactus and a Thanksgiving cactus, in cactus potting mix, and after that they had started to decline.

I immediately repotted them in “standard, good quality potting mix” as Matt suggested. I discovered that their roots were rotting. No wonder they seemed wilted, even though the soil took forever to dry out. It seems so obvious now, but it never occurred to me that a cactus mix would have this effect on a plant.

Thanksgiving cactus coming back

This small piece of Thanksgiving cactus, rescued from a rotting plant, valiantly bloomed in January.

I threw out all the rotten parts and rooted the pieces that seemed in good health. Fortunately zygocacti are willing rooters. Some pieces already had aerial roots that I took advantage of. I had inherited these two plants from my late mother-in-law, and for sentiment’s sake I didn’t want to lose them. Both kinds bloomed sparsely earlier this year, and I hope to build them up to full strength.

Bloom twice in one winter!

Christmas cactus reblooming

A supermarket special my mom picked up a few years ago. It’s on its second flush of bloom.


What’s blooming right now is a Christmas cactus I got from my mom a couple of years ago. It is on its second flush of bloom. That is a trick my mother-in-law taught me. She never worried about keeping her plants in the dark. (I don’t think she even knew people did this, until I asked her about it.) She did grow them in the coolest room in her house, which was a basement family room that had horizontal windows close to the ceiling, with a convenient ledge for the plants. Once they had budded, she brought them upstairs to enjoy, and when they were done blooming, she brought them back downstairs, where they often set a second set of buds.

We have a couple of pretty chilly rooms in our house, but they don’t have easily accessible windows. I have been placing my zygocacti on windowsills in the more reasonably heated rooms, but as close to the glass as I can get them without touching. These windows are original to our 19th century house and get pretty cold.

subzero cold frosted window

The temperature eventually dropped to -24°F (-31°C) the night this photo was taken. As long as it stays above 0°F they don’t ice up.

See what I mean? If you don’t have a chilly place for your plants, controlling day length or perhaps summering your plants outdoors until just before frost may be your only options.

What about those hyacinths?

In other news, the hyacinths I started forcing last month are on the verge of blooming, not quite in time for Garden Bloggers’ Bloom Day. Despite coming from a bag of mixed colors, it appears they will all be pink.

pink forced hyacinths

The fragrance of hyacinths should be floating through the kitchen in a day or two.

Inspired by the words of Elizabeth Lawrence, “We can have flowers nearly every month of the year,” Carol of May Dreams Gardens started Garden Bloggers Bloom Day. On the 15th of every month, garden bloggers from all over the world publish what is currently blooming in their gardens, and leave a link in Mr. Linky and the comments of May Dreams Gardens.

About the Author

Kathy Purdy is a colchicum evangelist, converting unsuspecting gardeners into colchicophiles. She would be delighted to speak to your group about colchicums or other gardening topics. Kathy’s been writing since 4th grade, gardening since high school, and blogging since 2002.

In its own way, frost may be one of the most beautiful things to happen in your garden all year . . . Don’t miss it. Like all true beauty, it is fleeting. It will grace your garden for but a short while this morning. . . . For this moment, embrace frost as the beautiful gift that it is.

~Philip Harnden in A Gardener’s Guide to Frost: Outwit the Weather and Extend the Spring and Fall Seasons

Comments on this entry are closed.

Les February 22, 2016, 8:44 pm

I once read to keep Schlumbergera outside as long as possible, even allowing them to dip into the 30’s, but not freezing. It seems to have worked for me.

Donna@Gardens Eye View February 21, 2016, 3:12 pm

I inherited a huge Christmas cactus from my late Mother-in-law and had some problems many years on with the plants…it is at least 30 years old, and I have had it for at least 20 years….I lost 2/3 of the plant a couple of years ago. Now it seems to be recovering, but I never have moved mine. It sits near a window with indirect light and blooms every year…sometimes twice. I think this plant needs repotting and will attempt it this summer.

Kathy Purdy February 21, 2016, 8:13 pm

Try rooting a few pieces before you attempt the repotting. That way, if the repotting doesn’t go well, you have a few new plants to carry on. And if the old plant thrives with the repotting, you have a few plants to give away.

Deborah Banks February 19, 2016, 6:13 pm

Great tip! But brrr! I hope you have nice heavy curtains on those windows.

Peter February 18, 2016, 8:20 am

I’m glad everything worked out. Keep up the good work! πŸ™‚

Frank February 16, 2016, 2:27 pm

Great news! Your flowers look great πŸ™‚
I always thought these were foolproof, but then realized they just loved my ‘wait for the last minute to bring them in’, ‘keep the thermostat too low’ and my general laziness most of all.

Kathy Purdy February 16, 2016, 4:22 pm

Yes, certain plants have an easier time coexisting with humans. That’s why some Christmas cacti are handed down to the next generation.

barbarapc February 16, 2016, 9:41 am

Good to read a nice success story Kathy! Too often folks don’t investigate below the soil level to see what might be happening and causing the problem. Glad your garden-surgery was successful. I’m on my last Amaryllis bloom sadly… However, I believe that gives me carte blanche to go pick up something new?

Kathy Purdy February 16, 2016, 4:21 pm

Oh, yes, you need something new.

Pat Evans February 16, 2016, 9:02 am

I have at least 10 Schlumbergera, both Thanksgiving and Christmas, in a variety of sizes, colors, and ages. Most bloom twice each year and don’t receive any special treatment. I used to summer them outside, but many are now too big to move. I have one that is orange and usually blooms for Halloween.
Kevin Lee Jacobs at agardenforthehome.com has a terrific post on Schlumbergera where he explains the difference between Thanksgiving and Christmas Cacti and how to tell them apart.

Kathy Purdy February 16, 2016, 4:21 pm

I agree, Pat, Kevin also has a good article on these plants. It sounds like you have found a good spot for your plants. That is the key point, I think.

Leslie February 15, 2016, 10:06 pm

What a good thing to know! And I am so glad you saved them.

Dee/reddirtramblings February 15, 2016, 9:43 pm

Good to know. Thank you Kathy and Matt. ~~Dee

Joanne Toft February 15, 2016, 8:42 pm

I have two varieties and both are on the second bloom cycle. Mine site in a bay window with lots of light and cool temperatures. One year I tried moving them and they just quite blooming. The like to sit in one cool place with lots of light but not a lot of direct sun. My large plant is now at least 47 years old. It was started with a sprout from my Grandfathers plant that was over 100 years old. Such a glories old plant.

Kathy Purdy February 15, 2016, 8:59 pm

Oh, Joanne, that sounds wonderful!

Mattus Matt February 15, 2016, 8:08 pm

Gush! You’re sweet! Happy St. Valentines Day – does that make yours a Valentines Cactus? BTW- those windows are insane! My greenhouse windows looked like that with our low temps this week (only -16), but hey – your blog IS called Cold Climate Gardening, right?

kathy Sturr of the Violet Fern February 15, 2016, 7:21 pm

Oh my, beautiful! I have never used a cactus mix on any of my succulents and they seem to do just fine. So interesting. I do place most of my succulents outdoors for the summer. My Christmas cactus was one of the survivors of the 2015 Great Plant Experiment and is once again spending winter in my cellar with a ceramic water plug and no heat. I hope it is doing as well as last year – when I returned home last year it was actually blooming. That frosty window looks mighty cold!

Alana February 15, 2016, 2:31 pm

I don’t know what I am doing special this year but I have two Thanksgiving cacti getting ready to rebloom. I’ve never used cactus mix with them; thank you for revealing what happens if you do.

Susanne Lipari February 15, 2016, 2:28 pm

I didn’t “know” any of this, but did it from sheer necessity. There are not enough warm windows in my old farm house to accommodate the Schlumbergias in their off season, so they hang out in the remotest, and thus coldest, parts of the house. Let’s be honest, unless in bloom, they are not particularly stunning. I also find that in the winter, they do quite well in a slightly darker space in the interior of a room. Too cold, too little light – none of that harms them as much as too much water. Thanks for making all that clear!

Charlie@Seattle Trekker February 15, 2016, 2:19 pm

Such wonderfully beautiful blooms to start this new week…

mr_subjunctive February 15, 2016, 2:00 pm

Different cultivars vary a lot in their need for long nights and cool temperatures. I’ve been growing out seedlings from a single cross (‘Caribbean Dancer’ x a NOID peach, about 200 seedlings total) since 2012, and the first bloom to appear showed up on a plant that was kept under artificial lights which were on for I think 10 hours every day year-round, and at a more or less constant 70F. On the other hand, I have a very old variety (I think x buckleyi but I’ll never know for sure) that will only produce blooms if I keep it down on the floor in a cold corner, with other plants standing between it and the main evening light source. And even then, it’ll only produce buds occasionally.

Seasonality of blooms varies some as well. I find that most of my plants produce a lot of blooms all at once in the fall (late October to early December, with a peak in mid-November), then take a break for about 6 weeks before they start to bloom sporadically in late January. A lot of them produce more total buds in the spring, but they’re spread out over a longer period (late January to late April, usually, though my record late bloom is May 23) so the display at any given moment isn’t as impressive as the one in the fall. Some store-bought varieties are more enthusiastic about spring blooming than others.

I’ve had the best luck with a regular potting mix, with enough unchopped sphagnum moss added to it to make the overall texture kind of spongy. Plants that are too cold and wet for too long will rot regardless of what kind of soil you have them in.

Kathy Purdy February 15, 2016, 2:52 pm

Thanks for sharing your experience, Mr. Subjunctive. It makes it clear that there’s quite a variation in plants and in their care.