Not all cacti like hot, sunny, dry conditions

Life is full of misconceptions or over-simplifications.

Life is full of misconceptions or over-simplifications.

One that is prevalent in the gardening world is that all cacti like it hot and dry. Cacti and succulents that originate in the desert do like hot dry conditions but the opposite is true of cacti that come from the tropics.

In nature tropical cacti are often found growing in pockets of organic matter in crotches of trees or attached to branches. They cling to the trees with roots but do not obtain any nutrition from the other plants. Nutrition is obtained through the roots that are in soil or the small air roots that are found where the plant segments meet.

Christmas, Easter and orchid cacti all fall into this category. They produce spectacular flowers when all their growing conditions are met.

Tropical cacti prefer to never be completely dry but the roots should not be allowed to sit in water. A good soil mix is needed that contains enough course material such as: perlite, vermiculite, small gravel or bark to allow drainage and leaf mould, compost or loam to provide nutrients.

Always check the moisture level in the soil before giving the plant more water. The top layer, about an inch (two cm), should be dry before the plant is watered. Then give the plant enough moisture that excess will run out of the bottom of the pot. Drain the excess water from the saucer.

As in the tropics these cacti prefer slightly acidic soil. Soil can be made acidic by watering occasionally with a weak tea solution.

Fertilize cacti like other plants when they break dormancy and are actively growing. Choose the fertilizer that is recommended for the plant and follow the instructions on the package. Fertilizer salts can build up in the soil so be sure to water without fertilizer once a month to flush out the salts.

Place tropical cacti in bright indirect sunlight. If they are placed in direct sunlight they will likely whither or burn. Buildings in our area often lack humidity. It can be added by placing the pot on a tray of rocks that contains water. The moisture will not be able to reach the plants roots but it will evaporate making that corner slightly more humid.

Correct temperatures and daylight hours are necessary for the plants to set buds. Naturally short days and cool nights trigger bud production. Some growers will recommend placing the plants outside in a shady part of the garden during the summer months but it is usually sufficient to place the plant in a cool bright area within the house.

Not all tropical cacti bloom or are dormant at the same time which means that it is possible to always have booms. The Christmas, Thanksgiving and Easter cacti have been hybridized to the point that the plant will bloom more than once a year. They often start blooming at the American Thanksgiving and bloom until Christmas.

There are many different varieties of Orchid Cacti available. Each variety will have a similar flower and growing habits but will always unique in shape, blooming time or flower colour. It is possible to purchase these plants but more often they are shared through cuttings that are easily rooted.

To take a cutting break off a segment and let it sit for about two weeks until the end has formed a callus. Once the callus is formed, place it in a small pot of soil. Keep it moist but not wet and it will root in a couple of weeks.

Tropical cacti are a great addition to the house as they thrive with very little care and have spectacular blooms.

Linda Tomlinson is a horticulturalist and educator living in Rocky Mountain House. You can contact her at

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