Celebrate the Holidays with Holiday Cactus

The Christmas season is upon us. Lights, trees, and holiday greens and plants are all around. Most people think of poinsettias as the traditional plant to decorate with for the holidays. Two holiday plants that can be purchased in bloom from Thanksgiving through Christmas are called holiday cacti. These include both Thanksgiving and Christmas cactus.

Both Thanksgiving and Christmas cactus plants are commonly given as houseplants or flowering plants during the holiday season. What are the differences between these two holiday cacti? Both are species of Schlumbergera, a leaf cactus, where the leaves are segments of the plant stem called pads. The Thanksgiving cactus has very sharp pointed leaf edges and flowers typically in the fall around Thanksgiving. The Christmas cactus has softer, scalloped edges and flowers a little later, closer the Christmas.

Image courtesy of gardengatemagazine.com

Holiday cacti are called “short day plants” meaning they require short days (less than 12 hours of light) to set flower buds. Cool night temperatures can also help to set the buds. This environment naturally occurs in Ohio in the fall.

They can be very long-lived, and when given the right conditions, they will rebloom each year.

During the summer, plants may be located outside on a deck, patio, window box, etc. in part shade (3-6 hours of sunlight per day). Filtered sunlight, such as under a tree, is preferable as it mimics the plant’s natural habitat. Excessive sunlight may result in pale green branches, drought, and sunburn.

One way to initiate flower buds next year is to leave plants outdoors in a protected location until just before frost danger. The shortening days and cooler nights of fall signal the plant to produce flowers buds resulting in abundant blooms. Alternatively, locate holiday cacti indoors a cool, bright location where daytime temperatures are 65-70° F and evening temperatures are 55-65° F. When plants are exposed to cooler night temperatures of 55° F, they bloom in approximately 5-6 weeks, sometimes regardless of the day length. However, when the night temperature is 60-65° F, plants must have at least 12 hours of complete darkness every night for about 6 weeks to bloom. Plants are unlikely to bloom if exposed to night temperatures above 65° F.


Can you tell what kind of holiday cactus this is?  Hint: the sharply pointed stems indicate that this is a Thanksgiving cactus!

Caring for Christmas Trees

Many families celebrate the end of the Thanksgiving holiday season by selecting and decorating a live Christmas tree in their homes.

Last year, over 32 million live Christmas trees were purchased at box stores, garden centers, Christmas tree lots and local Christmas tree farms across the United States.

Most trees are generally purchased the first weekend in December, which just happens to fall right after Thanksgiving this year – but sales continue all the way through Christmas Eve.

Do you have a preferred type of Christmas tree? Pine, spruce, and fir are the most common conifers cut and purchased for Christmas trees. Conifers are trees that produce their seeds in cones. They also have needle or scale-like leaves that stay green all winter long. Hence, they are also called evergreen trees.

One can identify each type of conifer by examining the needles and how they are attached to the stem. If needles are attached to the stem in clusters of 2-5 needles, then the tree is a pine. Spruce and fir trees have individual needles directly attached to the stem.

To distinguish the difference between a spruce and fir tree, feel the texture, shape, and rolling ability of the needle. Spruce needles tend to be sharply pointed and easily roll between your fingers. Fir needles tend to be soft and flat and are difficult to roll.

Once you’ve picked the perfect conifer to bring home – you’ll want ensure it performs all season long. The following tips can help trees retain needles longer once in the home.

Cut ½ to 1” from the end of the trunk and immediately place the tree in cool water. Several hours after a tree is cut, the trunk can no longer absorb water. The freshly cut trunk removes any blocked vascular tissue and allows the tree to take up water again.

Place your Christmas tree in a cool room. Warm temperatures cause trees to dry out quickly.  Make sure to keep live trees away from heat sources such as air vents, wood stoves, fireplaces, etc.

Trees take up the most water in the first few weeks after cutting. Select a tree stand that holds at least one quart of water per inch of stem diameter. If the tree stand accidentally runs out of water, it will need to be taken down and an additional ½ to 1” removed from the base of the trunk. This can be nearly impossible once trees are decorated, so check stands several times each day. Indoor pets also like to drink from tree stands which may require more frequent watering.

Once the Christmas season is over and needles begin to shed, it is time to remove the tree. You may want to wrap the tree in a sheet or tree bag before taking it outdoors to prevent considerable needle shed in the home. Check with your local community or village on whether there is a local tree drop off/pick up or recycling program. Trees can also be chipped and recycled into mulch.

Caring for Poinsettias

Many homes, offices and churches are decorated with festive trees, lights, and popular holiday plants like the poinsettia. December 12 marked National Poinsettia Day, a day celebrating our country’s most popular holiday plant! This day recognizes Joel Robert Poinsett, the first US ambassador to Mexico who introduced poinsettias to our country in 1821.

In their native habitat in Mexico and Central America, poinsettias grow as shrubs and can even develop into small trees. Today, the poinsettia is prized as an indoor holiday potted plant with over 100 varieties grown in varying shades of red, burgundy, coral, pink, white and combinations of the above.

The brightly colored leaves of poinsettia are often mistaken for the flowers. These colorful leaves are called bracts and surround the small, inconspicuous, yellow flowers called cyathia. The cyathia are clustered in the center of the bracts and shed yellow pollen. Once the pollen is shed, the bracts begin to fade. When shopping for a poinsettia, choose plants that have closed flowers or those that are only slightly open and not shedding pollen.

Since poinsettias are native to warm, tropical habitats, they can be injured if exposed to low temperatures below 55°F. Despite a few warm days here and there, you will want to make sure to cover plants with a paper or plastic sheath when transporting them from the place of purchase to your car and from your car to your home or office. Exposure to low temperatures can result in damage to the bracts and leaves, and in some cases, death of the plant.

Indoor conditions during the winter are not ideal for poinsettias, but proper care will help plants perform well throughout the holiday season. Poinsettias are grown in greenhouses under conditions that mimic their native habitat – temperatures of 65-70°F with high relative humidity and bright light. Once inside the home, provide at least six hours of bright, natural daylight such as near a sunny window. Maintain air temperatures between 65 and 70° F and avoid places where plants are exposed to drafts, fluctuating air currents, and excess heat or dry air from appliances, fireplaces or ventilation ducts.

Poinsettias prefer evenly moist soils that are not too wet and not too dry.  Water plants thoroughly when the soil surface feels dry to the touch.  Make sure the water begins to drain out of the holes at the base of the pot. Discard any excess water, as poinsettias left sitting in water generally develop root rots.

Signs that your plants are stressed and not happy include yellow leaves as well as rolling and dropping of leaves and bracts. Wilted plants will also drop leaves prematurely.  If wilting does occur, water the plant thoroughly to moisten the soil, then re-water again after 10 minutes. Never allow the plant to stand in excess water.

Poinsettia plants can be maintained in the home throughout the year and encouraged to rebloom the following winter with some coaxing. It is often easier to discard plants once they have finished blooming and look forward to purchasing fresh, vibrantly colored plants next year.