They are old-school and often overlooked, but these lovely Brazilian plants will do really well in your living-room.
As we slide into December, garden centres and supermarkets everywhere are cramming their shelves with Christmas houseplants. Yet from poinsettias to potted Christmas trees, many of these festive favourites can be extremely hard to keep alive in the conditions of the average living room for just a few weeks, let alone year to year. There is, however, a really old-school, and often overlooked, seasonal houseplant that is made from much tougher stuff: the beautiful and exotic Christmas cactus (Schlumbergera truncata and S x buckleyi).
These two species (which look so similar that they share a common name) hail from the cool mountains of southeastern Brazil, where they are pollinated by hummingbirds. Unusually for a cactus, they aren’t a desert plant, but have adapted to grow on the boughs of tall rainforest trees, festooning their branches with weeping foliage and dazzling flowers. This relatively cool-weather habitat is surprisingly similar to the conditions of our British living rooms, making them perfectly adapted to thrive in hanging baskets or trail over windowsills everywhere.
But what does a cactus have to do with Christmas? Not a great deal, really. In fact, in their native habitat their winter-flowering period doesn’t even coincide with Christmas. However, fortunately for gardeners like me, their habit of bursting into the most spectacular of floral displays from November to January occurs just when I need it most. Even when the blooms have faded, their beautiful architectural form means they look great year-round, from an easy-growing, affordable, widely available species. All this on plants with holly-like foliage, without any of hint of prickles. Sounds like a good deal to me!
Unlike other members of their family, Christmas cacti have adapted to be forest dwellers, so although they love bright light they prefer to be kept away from searing summer sunshine. How much is too much? Fortunately, the plants will tell you, as they start producing red pigments in their foliage as a chemical sunscreen if they aren’t happy. If you see this, simply move them a little further from the window.
High in the forest canopy, the only water the plants receive is the little that sticks to branches, making them more drought tolerant than many houseplants. A good guide is to keep the soil just moist to the touch, but never wet feeling, using a free-draining growing media. It was once thought that careful control of watering and temperature was essential to initiate flowering, but research has shown that this isn’t the case. Plants will start to bloom as soon as the light levels start to dip in autumn. Aside from a liquid feed in the summer, that is all you’ll need to do for flowers year after year.