Dear Readers, I used to have a bright pink Christmas cactus, that I nurtured for many years until, finally, someone overwatered it and it died. So I was very happy to see a fine selection in the Sunshine Garden Centre this week, and even happier when my lovely friend Jo bought me some as a Christmas present. I love the flowers on these plants – they always look to me a little like a bird leaping into the air. And with the array of buds on this one, I’m hoping that it will be flowering for quite some time.
Plus, I not only got a festive red cactus, but a white one…
and a magenta one, to match this extraordinary magenta cyclamen that I saw.
All cacti (with the exception of Rhipsalis baccifera, which has somehow found its way to Africa) are New World plants, but Christmas cacti are classified as forest cacti. These plants are very different from their desert relations: forest cacti are epiphytic, which means that they grow on the branches of trees or cracks in a rock face in their rainforest homes. They get water from the humidity of the air or rain, and their nutrients come from organic debris that accumulates around their roots. They therefore hate being waterlogged, as in their native environments the water would just wash away. They live in dappled sunlight, and air circulation around them is also good. All this means that they have to be kept in free-draining soil, and yet like to be sprayed or kept on wet pebbles to keep the humidity up. You often see Christmas cacti in hanging baskets for just this reason – it’s a way to make sure that they get the air circulation that they need, while at the same time being able to spray them for humidity, and admire them from all angles.
In the wild, Schlumbergera grow at altitudes of up to 700 metres (2300 feet) in south-eastern Brazil, and there are six to nine wild species. In Brazil, Christmas cacti can form sizeable shrubs of up to four feet tall. The plants have no leaves, but their modified stems enable them to photosynthesise. The flowers are adapted to be pollinated by hummingbirds (hence the wild-type plant is red, a colour easily visible to birds). Hummingbirds also act to transfer the seeds from one tree to another – as in the post about mistletoe a few weeks ago, the birds wipe their bills to remove the sticky seeds after feeding on the front, hence moving the cactus to a nice new home.
There are two main ‘families’ of Christmas cactus that you’re likely to come across in the stores at this time of year. My plant is Schlumbergera truncata. How can I tell? Mainly because the stems are extremely ‘pointy’ (hence one alternative name of ‘crab cactus’…
and the pollen is yellow.
However, you can also find Schlumbergera x buckleyi in the shops. It is a hybrid of Schlumbergera russeliana and Schlumbergera truncata. The stems of this plant are much less ‘prickly’, and the pollen is bright pink.
And here’s something rather lovely – the flowers of a Christmas cactus opening in a time-lapse sequence.
Christmas cacti have been cultivated in Europe since about 1818, with the first hybrid varieties appearing in the mid 1850s. They were very popular in the late Victorian period, but by 1900s they had fallen out of favour, and many varieties were lost. It’s funny how there are fashions in house plants – when I was growing up, everyone had spider plants and aspidistra, and these days these are something of a rarity. However, Christmas cacti staged a comeback: by the 1950s they were popular again, with breeders particularly keen on plants that flowered profusely and which also had more of an upright habit than the trailing habit of the wild plant (though I have noticed that most Christmas cacti revert to a more horizontal growth pattern once they mature). They also started to develop plants with different coloured flowers, such as this yellow one, Gold Charm, which is pretty but infertile.
However, colour can be problematic in cultivated varieties: it’s been found that the eventual hue of the flowers is influenced by the temperature during bud formation. A plant that might produce white or yellow flowers can be persuaded to produce pink or red-tinged ones instead if the temperature is above 57 degrees Fahrenheit, and plants that are already pink or red will produce much darker-coloured flowers. Iron is also said to influence flower colour.
If I look after my Christmas cacti properly, they can turn in to really magnificent plants – they don’t like being repotted, they don’t like sitting in water, but apart from that in my experience they are really easy-going plants. You can also propagate them pretty easily by breaking off one of the stem segments after the plant has flowered, letting it dry out for a week and then potting it up in cactus compost. In this way, a Christmas cactus can be almost immortal, as it will live on its clones even after the parent plant has died. And I have read several stories of Christmas cacti that are decades old, and some which are advancing into their hundreds. I rather like this story of ‘A Christmas Cactus Named Junior‘ by Kathy Keeler at ‘The Wandering Botanist’ for example. ‘Junior’ is certainly looking good after his adventures!
There is a Brazilian legend that a small boy in a Brazilian village prayed for a sign that Christmas had come, and in the morning all the rainforest plants had broken into flower on Christmas Day. Sadly, in Brazil Schlumbergera flowers in May and is in fact known as the ‘May Flower’. Blooming botanists, ruining all the stories.
But here is a poem by Gaia Holmes, discovered in the online version of The Stylist magazine of all things. Gosh, I like this a lot, probably because it makes me uneasy, and that is exactly what this time of year does to me too – the darkness that gathers around all the light and sparkle, like wolves waiting just outside the glow of the fire. Not very festive, I know. Anyway, see what you think, lovely people. There is always a Christmas cactus to admire, with its fantastical flowers and leap of faith.
He came in winter
when the house was always dark,
brought red Christmas cacti
fire-crackering from their pots
and a suitcase full of candles,
thickened my gloomy rooms
I met the shadows he bred
and did not complain
when he followed me to my bed.
Outside, frost had edged the world
The city foxes were howling,
cracking their teeth on the ice.
The sharp scent of January scared me.
His big hands cast wolves on the walls.
Fear made me knot myself
He had a bristled chin
and smelled of fathers.
‘Tell me a story,’ I said
and he told me how lust
could turn an angel
Published in Where The Road Runs Out by Gaia Holmes, Comma Press, £9.99, hive.co.uk
Photo One by By Schlumbergera_truncata_02.JPG: Lestat (Jan Mehlich)derivative work: Peter coxhead (talk) – Schlumbergera_truncata_02.JPG, CC BY-SA 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=17191427
Photo Two by By Maja Dumat – Weihnachtskaktus (Schlumbergera truncata)Uploaded by uleli, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=9728034