Dear Miss Floribunda,

My granddaughter just bought a condo that has an oriel window facing east. I think it would be a great place for plants. She has never grown anything before, so I’d like to buy her some easy ones as a Christmas gift. Can you recommend some houseplants that don’t require a lot of special care? It would be nice if they had flowers, and even nicer if the flowers bloomed at Christmas. She has a half-grown kitten who is agile and curious — so poinsettias and amaryllis are out.  

Botanic Nana on Buchanan Street

Dear Botanic Nana,

Christmas Cactus October 2022
What we find in nurseries and grocery stores at different times of the year can be a mixture of three cacti varieties: Thanksgiving, Christmas and Easter.

Christmas cacti (Schlumbergera) would make an ideal gift. Schlumbergera (and this includes Thanksgiving and Easter cacti, as well, which I’ll differentiate later) come in a spectacular spectrum of colors, ranging from a demure blush to flamboyant fuchsia to sizzling scarlet to incandescent orange. They are nontoxic, so an inquisitive kitten could sample them with impunity. They are easy-care and disease-free, and they can last for many years. There are record-breakers that have lived for more than 100 years!  They can be made to rebloom at Christmas every year, and can stay in bloom through the six darkest weeks of winter. 

After these cacti finish flowering, they are easily propagated from cuttings in water or in a very light, slightly acidic potting soil sold for succulents. In a few years, your granddaughter could fill that window with new plants — and make gifts of them to her friends at Christmas. 

When they begin to droop and their leaf pads lose color, she will know they need a slightly larger new home. Unlike such gesneriads as African violets, Schlumbergera are not particular about the containers they are planted in; don’t put them in too large a pot, however. They like being fairly snug in their pots, in light soil that doesn’t compact around their roots, which is related to how they thrive in their natural habitat.

These cacti are not desert plants, but are actually zygocacti. Like the much fussier orchids, they are epiphytes that grow in pockets of trees in the coastal mountain regions of Central America and Brazil, where they are pollinated by hummingbirds. Unlike desert cacti, they need to be watered every one to two weeks, and — like orchids — they enjoy being misted.  

Because Schlumbergera don’t grow in bogs, overwatering can cause root rot, and because they shelter beneath a canopy of tree leaves, they don’t like intense sunlight. You can tell they are getting too much sun if the leaves become reddish. If they are placed in a window facing south, consider using a sheer curtain to filter the sunlight. 

Because it is found at high altitudes, this variety of cactus likes a cooler temperature than desert cacti. My neighbor Flor da Selva has her window sills brimming with these plants in winter, but in summer, she puts them outside in a shaded spot on her covered front porch. As temperatures drop in fall, she takes them down to her cool, dark basement to start the process of forcing them to flower. 

Flor strongly emphasizes that they need at least 12 hours of uninterrupted full darkness and that even a dim light will skew the chemical signal produced in the dark. The temperature should not ever rise much above 60 F. She favors a mixture of Thanksgiving and Christmas cacti, and she brings the Thanksgiving cacti down in September and the Christmas cacti in

October. She then fertilizes them with a low nitrogen 0-10-10 fertilizer, and reduces the water she gives them. When the flowers open, she brings them back to the window sills upstairs where their festive color enhances the holidays and continues to brighten the darkest days of winter.   

What we find in nurseries and grocery stores at different times of the year can be a mixture of three cacti varieties: Thanksgiving, Christmas and Easter. They can be distinguished by the shaping of their leaf-pad edges. The Thanksgiving cactus (Schlumbergera truncata) has sharper edges than does the Christmas cactus; the Easter cactus (Schlumbergera gaertneri) has more gently rounded edges; the Christmas cactus (Schlumbergera bridgesii) has edges slightly upturned that remind me of the edges of Christmas-tree cookies. Christmas cactus colors tend to be more pastel than those of the Easter cactus, which has the brightest colors — the ones most appropriate for Christmas. The Easter cactus is named for the fact that it blooms in late winter and early spring. Like its relatives, it is what is called a short-day plant, which needs a cool, dark place to produce flowers. Using these three varieties, we can have cheerful indoor blooms from fall till spring. 

To discuss this with Flor and others who love this plant, please come to the next meeting of the Hyattsville Horticultural Society on Saturday, Dec. 16, at 10 a.m., at the Hyattsville Municipal Building (4310 Gallatin Street), downstairs. Parking is free in the lot surrounding the building, and a side door to the meeting room will be left open.

Miss Floribunda writes about gardening for the Life & Times. You may email her at