Gardening: Christmas cactus lovely, but needs TLC


Christmas cacti are popular hostess gifts at this time of year and it helps to know a little about the plants when making your selection.

I bought one several weeks ago using what I thought was good judgment when picking out the plant. I selected one with several open flowers, several mature buds just about to open and the rest of the stem tips were covered with tiny pink buds.

I figured those tiny little buds would continue to mature and my plant would be covered in color for months. Wrong – the mature flowers lasted a few days and the mature buds opened as expected, but the tiny pink growths have not grown, but are in fact drying up and falling off.

Rather than do the knee-jerk reaction and grab a jar of fertilizer, I did some research to see what was going on, and the answers made sense. First, plants often react to a change of environment by losing leaves and flower buds and moving from a green house to my condo was a big shock. Lack of humidity, change in temperatures and lack of sun are all issues.

Christmas cacti are native to tropical forests where they live in high humidity (50 to 60 percent), as do many indoor plants. In winter, when the temperatures drop and furnaces go on in our houses, the humidity can drop to 10 percent, which is drier than a desert.

The best way to increase the humidity around your plants is to set them on pebble trays or surround them with containers of water. The pebble tray should be wider than the canopy of the plant. Fill the tray with pebbles and add water to a depth of half to two-thirds the height of the pebbles. When the plant rests on the pebbles, the base of the container should be above the level of the water. As the water in these containers evaporates, it increases the humidity around plants.

When siting indoor plants avoid hot air vents and exit doors that will expose them to hot and cold drafts. Plants placed on or near a fireplace hearth should be moved when fires are lit.

Lack of light also causes bud drop, and in winter in Michigan, plants needing bright light should be close to south-facing windows.

I set up a plant light table in my office, and I give sun lovers a dose of light for a couple of days every week. I enjoy switching plants out.

Nancy Szerlag is a master gardener and Metro Detroit freelance writer. Her column appears Fridays in Homestyle. To ask her a question go to and click on Ask Nancy. You can also read her previous columns at detroitnewscom/homestyle.