Metro-East Living

Holiday cactus needs strategic rest period

The Christmas cactus is one of those plants that triggers fierce arguments over whether it is a Christmas cactus or a Thanksgiving cactus.
The Christmas cactus is one of those plants that triggers fierce arguments over whether it is a Christmas cactus or a Thanksgiving cactus. Chicago Tribune Service

Q: My Thanksgiving-blooming cactus bloomed way before Halloween. What is going on? How do I get it to bloom at the right time?

J.G. of Elkton

A: There are just two types of forest cacti — Christmas cacti, Zygocactus truncates, (which bloom in the fall) and Easter cacti, Rhipsalidopsis gaertneri, (which bloom in the spring). Both of these types of cacti need a resting period during which the temperature should be kept on the cool side of 55 degrees and on the dry side by watering very infrequently for about two months.

For the Christmas cactus, this period is in the months of February and March, followed by a dry period in late summer and early fall. For the Easter cactus, the resting period is in October through January followed by a dry cool period of two months in April and May to get the floral buds to develop. Since the date of Easter changes each year, you will need schedule of resting period earlier for an early Easter. If you set the resting periods earlier, you can get the Christmas cactus group to bloom earlier, such as Halloween or Thanksgiving. Many commercial growers do this to sell more plants, calling them by whatever holiday the cactus plants are blooming.

Q: As Christmas fast approaches, I have a question about a nearly 8-year-old poinsettia plant. It is totally overgrown with long woody stems (all leaning toward the sun) that have lush green foliage at the ends. I have kept it alive so long because it is just so healthy. However, I must do something with it as it takes up half of one room in my small apartment. Is pruning my only option? I do know at this point it would be very messy because I have noticed a white sap that oozes from the broken stems. Is there any way to propagate the plant by making cuttings of the mature plant? Or must I throw out the monster and buy a new one?

S.W. of Belleville

A: Congratulations! You have one of the oldest poinsettia plants that I know of growing in a home. You have had this plant for so long, it would be a shame to throw it out. One option you mentioned was pruning, but you would want to do this in the spring because spring would be the correct time for the plant to begin growing again with the increased sunlight.

As you stated, there would be a heavy production of latex white sap and you have to be careful of getting this on your skin because it can cause chemical burns. You can avoid this sap by using rubber gloves. You could prune the plant down 2/3 of the height. Then you would need to repot it with new growing media in the container you are now using.

If you want to make cuttings again, be careful with the white sap. You can make cuttings in the spring and summer months. Make cuttings about 6 inches long, taken from the tips of each stem. You will need to obtain a powdered chemical called a rooting hormone. Dip about 1/2 of an inch of the cut stem into this powder. Place the cutting into a container, which you will need to cover with a clear plastic film to keep the humidity high. Do not place this cutting in direct sunlight.

In three to four weeks, you should be able to find bright fuzzy roots developing, and you can take the plastic film off, allowing the cutting to develop and adjust to humidity of your home. Keep a close watch for the first few weeks to make sure the leaves do not droop and wilt. If this happens, you will need to place the plastic film back over the cutting and slowly make cuts in the plastic to allow the plant to adjust to lower humidity as time goes on. Eventually, you should be able to place each cutting into its own 1-gallon container.

Charles Giedeman is a local contributing writer. Send your gardening questions to Lifestyle Editor Patrick Kuhl, Belleville News-Democrat, P.O. Box 427, 120 S. Illinois St., Belleville, IL 62222-0427, or email them to

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