DEAR JESSICA: My Christmas cactus is not doing very well. For most of the time I’ve had it (about 17 years), it’s been in lowlight situations. A year ago, I was in the process of moving, so I brought it into work, where we have full, southern light. At first it seemed to thrive, but then it started turning pink. Since I read that that’s a sign that the plant is stressed out, I moved it farther from the window. It’s been a year, and it still seems droopy, and branches keep falling off, which can’t be good. I haven’t changed the soil in a while. It does still bloom on a regular basis, however.
This was my mom’s Christmas cactus, and I took it when she died, so I’m attached to it. If you can give me any suggestions, I’d really appreciate it!
— Andrea Lillo,
DEAR ANDREA: You are correct — your plant is under stress. Pink discoloration of a Christmas cactus (Schlumbergera bridgesii) can be indicative of a problem called root rot, which results from overwatering or poor drainage. The only way to know for sure is to (gently) slip the plant out of its container and examine the roots. If roots are fresh and white, they are healthy. If they have brown or black tips, they are beginning to rot. If they are mushy or slimy, they are quite rotted and there likely isn’t anything you can do to save the plant. Depending on the extent of decay, however, you may be able to reverse the damage.
Trim away any obvious root damage and rinse the roots in cool, fresh water, then leave the plant unpotted overnight. If any of the foliage is mushy or badly damaged, trim it away, too. If the plant was outgrowing its pot, move up to one that is only one size larger. If the pot was appropriately sized, wash and disinfect it with a 10 percent bleach solution, and rinse and dry well. Repot the plant in fresh potting mix and do not water it for about a week. When you resume watering, do so thoroughly until water drains through the holes at the bottom of the pot, then not again until the top inch of soil is completely dry. Discard any water that accumulates in the saucer so it does not get taken up into soil through the drainage hole.
As counterintuitive as this may seem, Christmas cactuses sometimes turn pink or red when they don’t receive enough water. Even if kept indoors year-round, these plants require only minimal water over winter, but their needs increase during the growing season.
If you find the roots appear healthy and you don’t believe watering is at fault (you have kept it alive for 17 years, after all), then it’s possible your plant is turning pink due to incorrect sun exposure. Christmas cactuses require bright sun during winter and partial shade during the active growing season. Confirm that it’s properly situated.
The problem also could be attributed to a magnesium deficiency, which often arises over winter. This can be remedied by spraying the entire plant, including the undersides of leaves, with one teaspoon of Epsom salts dissolved in a gallon of room-temperature water. Do this once a month until the plant’s color returns to normal.
Finally, apply a balanced houseplant fertilizer, according to package directions, monthly, from spring through fall — but not during the same week that Epsom salts are applied. Good luck.
DEAR JESSICA: I have a Leyland cypress that I forgot to untie last year. Now it looks like it’s dying, with middle needles falling off, but there’s new growth on bottom. Should I just pull it out and replace it?
— Nancy Padilla,
DEAR NANCY: It looks like some of your tree’s branches are dying off, likely due to prolonged constriction from being tied up for a year.
Prune away all the dead branches and evaluate how the tree looks. Leylands grow very quickly, so I would wait to see how it grows and fills in over the summer before removing it.