The Perfect Holiday Plant -- Christmas Cactus
If you keep only one holiday plant this year, make it Christmas cactus. Here's one of mine that I've had for five years. Its flowers are magenta, but you can also get kinds with red, orange, pink, coral, purple, or white flowers. This plant blooms every year, is easy to care for, will live forever provided I don't water it with bleach, and it's cheap.
I call it a Christmas cactus, but it always starts blooming around Thanksgiving and flowers for 2-3 weeks. Maybe that's because it's really a Thanksgiving cactus (Schlumbergera truncata), rather than the better-known Christmas cactus (S. x buckleyi). Other than the difference in blooming times, it's hard to tell the two apart. The telltale sign, supposedly, is that the former has two large teeth (leafy teeth, not shark's teeth) on the tip of the last joint on each branch, while the latter doesn't. Hybridization between the two has blurred the lines, so let's be practical. If it blooms at Thanksgiving, it's a Thanksgiving cactus. If it blooms at Christmas, it's a Christmas cactus. If it blooms for the Fourth of July, you live in Australia.
How to Grow
These plants are easy, easy, easy. (Even you can grow them, Jeff.) Here's all you need to know.
Light -- From spring until fall, give them light shade all day. No direct sun, not even in morning. How do I know this? Because I left my plants on my deck this summer where they got morning sun and afternoon shade. Trouble is, even morning sun is too hot in summer. It scalds them and they drop branch segments. Now I leave them in the light shade all-day shade of my screened porch. They love it. Once you bring them inside for winter, put them in a bright window.
Soil -- Good drainage is an absolute must. I don't think you need to send off Kazakhstan for some arcane potting soil. Ordinary potting soil is OK as along as it does two things -- holds enough moisture to keep the leaves plump and also drains excess water away quickly.
Water -- Take it easy on the water. From spring to fall, let them go somewhat dry between waterings. Watering once or twice a week is plenty. Don't let plants sit in saucers filled with water. Plants with flower buds or flowers are a different matter, however. Keep the soil moist (never soggy) during blooming or the buds and flowers may fall off.
Fertilizer -- Take it easy on fertilizer too. These plants aren't heavy feeders. From spring to fall, feed maybe once a month with liquid 20-20-20. Don't feed at all in winter. Don't you wish you could treat your spouse's relatives the same way?
The Must-Know Secret to Blooming -- Like poinsettia and kalanchoe, Christmas and Thanksgiving cactus need short days and long nights to set flower buds. If you live where falls are mild, like I do, this is easy. Just leave you plants outside where there isn't an outside light. I leave mine on my screened porch. By the beginning of November (as long as you protect them from frost), they'll start forming flower buds. If your falls are too cold to leave them outside, bring them inside to a bright window where you don't turn on inside lights after dark. Cool temperatures (65 degrees and lower) will prolong the blooming.
Where to Buy -- Any local garden center, home center, greenhouse. Choose a color you like. You'd better like it, because you'll be seeing it during the holidays for the rest of your life.