Whether it's because of their colour, the time of year they bloom or the fruits they bear, certain plants have come to be associated with specific holidays or seasons. When we think of spring and Easter, we think of lilies and tulips; mums are perfect in the fall; and for the winter holidays, we think of poinsettias, amaryllis and Christmas cacti.
It seems a touch backwards to associate a hot-weather cactus with a cold-weather holiday in Canada, but we do—because that's the time of year these plants burst into colour.
Douglas Justice, curator of collections and associate director at the University of British Columbia Botanical Garden, calls Christmas cacti "among the easiest of houseplants to care for." If you're consistent with your care, your Christmas cactus will bloom right on cue, every holiday. In fact, Justice says he knows of some Christmas cactus plants that are at least 80 years old.
Where does it come from?
You can identify autumn- and winter-flowering holiday cacti by their "small, flattened, jointed photosynthetic stem segments," says Justice. "They don't produce recognizable leaves." They do, however, have indented notches at margins that look like teeth and brilliantly bright, tubular flowers in the dead of winter.
Christmas cacti are native to the forests of southeastern Brazil. Lucky for Canadians, says Justice, they make great houseplants because they have adapted to a shaded environment, perching on mossy rocks in trees and humid forests.
Christmas cactus cultivars
According to Justice, there are a number of different types of Christmas cactus. All fall under the Schlumbergera genus, but can be broken into two main groups:
The traditional Christmas cactus everyone's grandmother keeps in her living room belongs to the Buckleyi Group. These plants have drooping stems and hot pink, symmetrical hanging flowers. They'll grow to a height of about 15 centimetres and a spread of up to 1 metre.
The Truncata Group cultivars flower earlier in the season and are stiffer and more upright. These are the plants that have pointed teeth at each stem segment. They're also more shade tolerant and their flowers are generally coral-pink, white or orange-red. These are often called Thanksgiving cactus, crab cactus or claw cactus and are the most commonly available and easiest to care for.
Other groups , such as the Reginae Group and the Exotica Group, refer to a variety of hybrids.