Easter Cactus: No Spines, Yet Still a Prickly Customer

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Easter cactus (Hatiora gaertneri)

Among the traditional Easter plants, there is one that is really nothing like the others: the Easter cactus. It looks like a somewhat smaller Christmas cactus, but gives itself away by blooming massively in spring rather than at Christmas.

This plant has given taxonomists a great deal of trouble. As a result, its name has changed many times, among others from Epiphyllum gaertneri to Schlumbergera gaertneri and more recently to Rhipsalidopsis gaertneri. But it appears it should now be called Hatiora gaertneri. Let’s hope this latest name hangs around for a few decades!

Jungle Origins

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With its pendulous stems, the Easter cactus (Hatiora gaertneri) makes a great hanging plant.

This plant comes from the jungles of Brazil where it grows on trees (more rarely on rock faces) as an epiphyte. It’s mostly visibly made up of flattened, segmented green stems that many people take for leaves. In fact, they actually work as leaves: the Easter cactus has none and so its green stems carry out the photosynthesis it needs for its survival. Spines, so common on desert cactus, have been reduced to a minimum on this jungle cactus: all that remains are small soft hairs at the tips of the segments, so insignificant that you would probably never have noticed them if I hadn’t mentioned them. The stems are upright at first, but quickly arch downward and soon become pendulous.

This plant is pretty obviously related to the Christmas cactus (Schlumbergera russelliana and S. x buckleyi) and Thanksgiving cactus (S. truncata), with which it shares flattened pendulous green stems, but unlike its cousins, the Easter cactus’ segments are smaller, narrower and without crenellations or teeth. Also, its blooms are perfectly symmetrical, in fact star-shaped, nothing like the stretched-out blooms of the various Schlumbergera species. And of course, the Easter cactus blooms the opposite time of year to Christmas cactus!

In the wilds of Brazil, this cactus blooms in the austral spring, that is, in October or November, certainly not at Easter. It only took on the common name of Easter cactus once people started growing it in the northern hemisphere. With day lengths being reversed north of the equator, the Easter cactus switched to blooming from March or April until May, more or less at Easter time, usually for a good month.

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The pink blooms show that this Easter cactus belongs to the hybrid species Hatiora x graeseri.

The original plant had red flowers, but you’ll find commercial Easter cacti with pink, orange, or even white blooms. These result from crosses with other species of Hatiora, especially the pink Easter cactus (Hatioria rosea), a close relative. The hybrids between the two are officially called H. x graeseri.

A Prickly Plant to Grow

Despite its physical similarity to the nearly unkillable Christmas cactus, the Easter cactus has a reputation for being difficult to grow… and also difficult to bloom.

Our great-grandparents didn’t think so, for it was once a popular parlor plant, but then, they didn’t heat their homes much. If we find it difficult to grow in modern times, it’s largely because we heat our homes at night, something it simply doesn’t like. It doesn’t mind hot summer temperatures, but in the winter, it needs things to be cool: days of no more than 65˚F (18˚C) and nights of 40 to 55˚F (4 to 13˚C).

It also requires good atmospheric humidity at all times (a humidifier or humidity tray would be useful during the winter months) and very careful watering at all times. Its soil should be slightly moist almost all year, neither wet nor dry. The one exception would be right after it blooms, when it needs a one-month rest period during which it can be allowed to dry out completely.

If you fail to follow this quite picky maintenance routine, the plant will start to drop segments and may even rot away entirely. Many an otherwise greenthumb gardener has sent an Easter cactus to an early grave!

Getting It to Bloom

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Hatiora x graeseri ‘Columbia’. Photo: http://www.logees.com

If that wasn’t enough, you still need to make an effort to get your Easter cactus to bloom, although that’s somewhat easier to accomplish. To this end, the Easter cactus requires a period of about 8 to 10 weeks of short winter days followed by long spring days. So ideally, starting about Christmas, you should place it in a room that receives no artificial light at night. Also, once days are longer and warmer and flower buds become visible, don’t move the plant or the flowers may drop without ever opening.

So, in a nutshell, this plant needs short days and cool but not freezing temperatures in the winter, followed by warming temperatures and longer days in spring. If you can manage that, you can get yours to bloom.

A Few Other Details

The following points are easier to follow: once you gotten the temperature/daylength/humidity thing sorted out, you’ll find the Easter cactus’ other needs to be pretty much standard houseplant care.

When it comes to lighting, the Easter cactus is quite accommodating. It prefers medium light, so a well-lit location, but without too much direct sunlight. Intense light is however preferable in winter, even full sun.

This plant is not a heavy feeder, so you can fertilize it with a reduced dose of fertilizer (about ¼ of the recommended rate) from the time it wakes up in June (remember that it took a little rest immediately after flowering) until October. Any ol’ fertilizer will do.

As an epiphytic plant, it likes moisture but not to be left soaking in water. Therefore a well-aerated commercial houseplant blend should work well. Some specialists like to add 1/3 more perlite to the mix, others swear by orchid mixes. The ideal season for repotting is immediately after the plant starts growing again after its late spring rest, therefore in June.

So there you go, a few tricks on how to grow and bloom Easter cactus. Indeed, it is a prickly customer that forces you to give into its whims if you want to get beautiful blooms… but you’ll probably find the show well worth the effort!

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