What is Christmas Cactus?

Christmas tree ornaments are made from the dried flowers of the Christmas cacti. These plants grow in tropical regions of North America, Asia and Europe. They have been cultivated since ancient times. The plant has many names including angel’s hair, angel’s tears, angel’s breath, angel flower and other common names such as snowdrop, jack-o’-lantern and mistletoe.

The Christmas cactus (Cactaceae) is native to the American Southwest and Mexico. It grows up to 1 meter tall with a flat, oval shape.

Its stems are long and slender, but its leaves are short and rounded at the base. Leaves are opposite in color to the stem; they have no veins or hairs. Flowers appear in clusters of 5-10 petals, each with three sepals and five stamens. Flowers are produced in spring and summer.

In the wild, Christmas cacti do not reproduce sexually. Instead, they produce seeds which germinate after being exposed to light for one year.

When these seeds mature into seedlings, they continue to grow until maturity when they die back to the ground. Once a cactus dies it will remain dead unless it is carefully removed before rotting sets in.

Christmas cacti can be propagated by seeds to produce identical offspring or by cuttings. The latter is asexual reproduction, which produces both males and females.

It is important to note that the plants are very slow growers.

Cutting propagation involves a little luck because it requires the division of genetically different plant cells. To do this, a perfectly healthy and ripened stem is required in the late summer or fall months.

It is important the stem be cut vertically using a sharp knife and the cut end must remain dry to seal the plant’s skin. Special hormone-rich liquid medium is used to place one or more sections of stem.

The first roots appear in two weeks and a new crop of leaves appears in three weeks. After six months, you will have a brand new plant with multiple stems and a full set of leaves.

The whole process from cutting to new growth takes about nine months.

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Problems arise when Christmas cacti are exposed to draughts, extreme heat and bright sunlight. The plant’s leaves turn red and dry up when the temperature goes higher than 90 degrees Fahrenheit.

Wet soil or waterlogged soil can also be fatal to these plants.

There are many diseases that affect Christmas cacti. They are fungal or bacterial in nature and spread by contact with infected plants.

They can be prevented by keeping your plants isolated from other cacti. Most Christmas cacti are susceptible to root rot, a fungal disease that is fatal if not treated on time.

White spots on Christmas cactus

A common sign of a fungal infection is the appearance of white spots on christmas cactus leaves. The spots appear as tiny white dots amidst green color of the leaves.

The dots are the fruiting bodies of the fungal agents which spread by air and water. The disease can be fatal if not treated on time.

Fungicides are available and can be applied using a spray bottle to keep the leaves free of white spots. You can also remove and destroy the infected section of the plant.

Fungicides are only effective when used before the infection spreads through the entire plant.

If the plant is severely infected, you should remove and destroy the entire plant immediately and sterilize all cutting tools before applying fungicides to healthy plants.

The other white spots disease seen on Christmas cacti is mosaic disease. It is a viral infection that affects the plants severely, causing brown and yellow spots on the green body of the plant.

The spots are like dead cells on the leaves which eventually turn brown and fall off.

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The disease cannot be cured but its effects can be reduced by practicing good cultural methods, such as watering and feeding. Unlike white spots which are caused by fungi, this disease is caused by a virus and is transferred through infected plants and tools.

The first symptom of the disease is the slow wilting of leaves starting from the bottom. Wilted leaves eventually fall off and are replaced by brown spots.

Wilting can be prevented by giving the plant adequate water supply. It is very important to keep the medium wet at all times to reduce the effects of this disease.

Cylindrocladium Root and Crown Rot

Both the root and crown of the plant can be affected by a fungal disease that turns the healthy green body into a brown rotten form. The disease spreads slowly and the leaves start wilting followed by drying and death.

Fungicides are available to control the disease.

The best way to keep your plants away from this disease is to keep them isolated from other plants and to provide adequate ventilation in areas where they are grown. Keeping the soil free from dead tissues and maintaining a balance of air and water in the soil are also important.

It is very important to inspect new plants before adding them to the existing collection to avoid infected plants.

The following are some common pests and diseases that affect Christmas cacti:

Common Pests:

Aphids – These tiny pale green, black or brown bumps on wool are actually aphids. They feed on the sap of plants and produce a sweet substance called honeydew.

This in turn is eaten by ants as they protect the aphids from their natural enemies.

Cactoblastis Moths – These black and white moths lay eggs on cacti. The eggs hatch and the young crawlers attack young shoots and needles, creating bare patches where they suck the sap.

Mealybugs – Mealybugs are white, worm-like insects covered with a white, mealy wax. They suck the sap of the plant and as they grow larger, the needles begin to wither.

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Ants – Different types of ants attack different parts of the cacti. Fire ants like the seeds and are often found around the base of plants.

Thief ants feed on the milky juice inside the cactus that is found just under the skin.

Asparagus Beetles – These small, green bugs chew tiny holes in the leaves. They leave a silvery, slimy trail as they move.

If you crush the bug it has a distinctive garlic smell.

Managing Pests and Diseases:

Rotting occurs when there is an absence of air or water inside the stem of cacti. Small wounds to the cactus make it more susceptible to rotting.

Good Growing Practices

Inspect new plants before adding them to your collection.

Isolate new plants for a few weeks. If any diseases appear, you can safely discard the plant before it infects the rest of your collection.

Wash your hands before working with your cacti. Your hands carry lots of bacteria from the outside world, some of which can be harmful to your cacti.

Quarantining new plants is a good idea if you want to limit the spread of disease. Discard any diseased plants.

Use sterile cutting tools and instruments when working on cacti. Don’t use the same cutting tool on different cacti.

Use clean water when watering your cacti. Water that is collected from the rain and stored in a clean container is okay for a few days but it is best to keep it inside for at least a month before using it.

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If stored long term, add a small amount of soluble fertilizer to the water once every two weeks to maintain its quality.

Prune your cacti if you see signs of infection or infestation. Cut out any dead parts immediately.

Use insecticides and fungicides when necessary. Always follow the manufacturer’s instructions.

Never apply chemicals when the climate is too hot or too cold.

If all else fails, dispose of the diseased plant before it can infect the rest of your collection.

The Importance of Rotting

While diseases and pests can have a very negative effect on your collection, rot can be even more destructive. Most cacti are made up of very little water which means they are prone to drying out rapidly.

When the plant’s cells dry out, the interior tissues begin to break down. If it is not quickly restored, this dying tissue spreads and the plant begins to rot. The signs of rotting are obvious – mushy spots and discolored tissue are a sure sign that rot has set in. This can be caused by too much water, although it usually occurs when a plant has been deprived of water for a long period of time.

Rotting is not always bad and in fact, some cacti have evolved to use rotting as a survival technique. When an arm of a cacti begins to dry out, the cells begin to break down.

This allows the arm to break away more easily during a flash flood. The arm then floats downstream until it becomes waterlogged. The cells can no longer break down and so the arm survives till it eventually floats back to its home where it can take root and begin to grow again.

When most people think of a rotting cactus, they think of a multi-legged creature that is very hard to get rid of. These people obviously have never had a millipede in their collection.

While this bug does not cause decay like a true rot grub, it eats all the plants in the collection one by one. While one or two of these creatures will not be able to wipe out the entire collection, it is not a battle worth fighting.

The first sign that you have a millipede is a damaged plant. The leaves will be chewed and have irregular holes throughout them.

You will see a trail of many legs, curving back and forth as the millipede eats its way through your collection. Your first impulse may be to kill it but this is not as easy as it sounds. Millipedes are protected by a hard exoskeleton which makes them resistant to most sprays. They also curl up into a tight ball when they are threatened making it very difficult to crush them with your shoe. The best way to kill them is to place a container over them and slowly pour boiling water on top. This will have to be repeated several times as even a four inch millipede can survive a great deal of heat.

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Another type of pest that is sometimes overlooked, but should not be, are the weeds in your collection. Not all plants are welcome additions and sometimes you bring one home unknowingly, or some small specimens creep in from outside.

A healthy collection of cacti is a beacon for weeds and grasses. These plants are often small and obscure and sometimes go unnoticed until they have taken root. One of the worst offenders is the “Hippo Grass”. This is a common type of grass which can grow two inches per day. It also produces thousands of seeds every few months. As if that wasn’t bad enough, it also smothers other plants by wrapping around their stems and blocking out all sunlight. Identifying it is easy. It has a dark green color and is clearly grass.

Once you have located these unwanted visitors, the best way to get rid of them is to simply pick them. The next time you water your collection, the seeds will drift away on the stream of water and the roots will be washed away.

Be sure to pull up all of the roots as they can regenerate if even a small piece remains attached to the root system.

Always check for grasses and weeds before adding new specimens to your collection and never add wild caught specimens to your collection without quarantine.

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