Is it really a cactus?

Yep, it may not look like it has anything in common with cousins like the prickly, giant Saguaro of the Sonoran desert, but the colorful “Christmas cacti” on sale everywhere right now do indeed hail from the same plant family, Cactaceae.

Sometimes called “The Other Holiday Plant” in deference to the popularity of the poinsettia, Christmas cacti belong to a genus named for Frenchman Frédéric Schlumberger, a 19th century aristocrat who kept a large cactus collection in his chateau near Rouen.

In their native environment in southeastern Brazil, Schlumbergera are epiphytes that grow on trees or rocks and, much like many orchids, derive moisture and nutrients from the air.

The plants are easily identified by their paddle-like stem segments and brilliant hued flowers that seem to erupt like fireworks in November and December.

In nature, flower colors range from white to pink to peach to red, but Schlumbergera has been extensively hybridized, leading to many new colors on the market.

Christmas cacti make charming additions to holiday décor, but there is no reason to treat them as an annual and dispose of them when the season is over, as poinsettias often are.

With a minimal amount of effort, a Christmas cactus can grow into a large specimen that blooms as if on cue each year when the holiday season arrives.

Light is the single most important factor that determines when and if the plant will bloom. The cacti do best in a sunny east- or north-facing window where they do not receive any direct sunlight, which can cause the stems to discolor.

Buds form when days shorten and the plants undergo twelve hours per day of darkness.

Temperature matters, too. These plants prefer a temperature range from 65 degrees to 75 degrees. In most homes locally, the air is conditioned in this range so temperature requirements should not be overly demanding.

Controlling humidity may be a little more difficult, however. The same central AC and heat that provide the desired temperature range will also dry out the air around these humidity-loving plants. One source recommends placing the pot holding the Christmas cactus atop small pebbles in a pan partially filled with water.

Another says that merely placing a glass or saucer of water near the plant can provide the 50-60 percent of humidity needed for optimum growing and flowering conditions.

Water can be the enemy of the Christmas cactus if not handled judiciously. Because the plants are tropical and not desert cacti, they do need water to flourish.

But too much or too little water can be just as harmful to the Christmas cactus as to any other plant. The best approach is to check the soil moisture by feel and to water thoroughly when the top one inch is dry.

The goal is to produce an environment in which the soil is evenly moist but to err on the side of dryness when in doubt. Soil should be coarse to allow excellent drainage.

Want more flowers? To encourage branching, and therefore more terminals for bud formation, wait until June and then remove two or three stem segments by pinching or cutting at the joint where one segment connects to the next.

The removed sections don’t have to go to waste. Instead, plant them in moist vermiculite or a mixture of perlite and peat moss to root them and produce new plants. Get pinching out of the way before mid-month, however, to avoid interfering with bud formation.

With a little luck, your newly propagated plant can turn into a present that you can give to a friend come next holiday season.

R. Stephanie Bruno writes about homes and gardens. Contact her at rstephaniebruno@gmail.com.