What are your favorite holiday songs? They’re probably not “Oh, Christmas Cactus” or “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Cactus.” But this blooming succulent pops up everywhere during winter. And some people might even choose it as a sustainable alternative to a Christmas tree. Instead of having to fell a tree every year, these succulents have been known to last 20 years, or even an entire century according to some accounts. They also make great gifts for plant-loving friends. And they’re nontoxic to dogs, cats and kids, though we still wouldn’t suggest eating it very much. Here’s what to know if you adopt a Christmas cactus this holiday season.

Understanding your Christmas cactus

Turns out, not all cacti come from the desert. Christmas cacti, technically known as the genus Schlumbergera, hail from humid Brazilian forests. They’re epiphytes, also known as air plants, which mean that in the wild they grow on another plant for physical support. So they’re more at home in the shallow organic debris in tree trunk crevices than in soil. Christmas cacti come in pinks, red, white, orange, cream and salmon. They tend to bloom between early and mid-winter, hence the name. The Easter cactus, which blooms between late winter and mid spring, is related.

Related: Are purple Christmas trees a new holiday tradition?

One thing that makes it easy to care for your Christmas cactus is that it will be happy in its original pot for a few years. When it grows enough to need replanting, up the pot size just an inch or two in diameter. You should use well drained potting soil. Remember, this is an air plant, not something that thrives in mud. Be sure to replant your cactus in a pot with drainage holes.

Being a cactus, your new plant friend enjoys bright sunlight, but indirect is best. Direct sunlight will burn it. West or south-facing windows are good. Protect your cactus from sunburn with a sheer curtain. Christmas cacti favor humidity. Mist it every day, but only water the base of the plant if the soil is totally dry to the touch.

Ensure your bloom

If you want your cactus to bloom in December, it helps to fertilize it monthly with a houseplant fertilizer from June to August. Apply the fertilizer at half strength. Your cactus will also enjoy some outdoor time in the summer, but remember, indirect sunlight. And bring it back inside before the temperature drops below 55 degrees Fahrenheit at the lowest.

Now here’s the real trick to blooming. Your cactus needs a lot of darkness (12 to 14 hours per day) for six weeks, and a cool temperature, between 50 to 65 degrees Fahrenheit. This sets the buds, ensuring a beautiful display. Consider sticking it in a closet daily. Indoor gardeners can set a reminder on their phones so they remember to keep on their cactus’ schedule.

Christmas cactus lore

You can find lots of stories online about the meaning of Christmas cacti. For instance, the Laidback Gardener blog spins a tale about a young Brazilian boy praying to God to show him a Christmas sign as relief from the jungle humidity. The boy emerged from his humble hut on Christmas day to find glorious flowering cacti filling the forest.

Another religious story has a Jesuit Missionary named Father Jose struggling to gain the trust of Indigenous Bolivians so he could indoctrinate them in the Bible. After praying to God on Christ mas Eve, he heard the villagers singing a Christmas hymn while children paraded into the church, their arms full of Christmas cactus.

According to the University of Illinois Extension, the truth is a bit less colorful and a lot more believable. Since the cactus blooms around Christmas, voila, it got its name. Same thing for the Easter cactus. And the Thanksgiving cactus, which blooms — you guessed it — in late fall.

Will the Christmas cactus replace a tree?

Jane Pellicciotto of Portland, Oregon bought her own Christmas cactus last year from Trader Joe’s after being inspired by a friend’s pink-blooming cactus.

“But as soon as I got it home, all the little buds fell off. I was about to return it but repotted it, spritzed it and the buds came back and bloomed a few months later,” she said. Yep, the experts say that not enough water can indeed make the cactus’ leaves droop. While Pellicciotto likes her cactus, she’s not sure it blooms reliably enough to make it a tradition. Plus, it’s too small to replace the drama of a Christmas tree.

But a Christmas cactus might do the trick for people who live in a small space, aren’t attached to the tree tradition and want a living plant. And if it doesn’t bloom on cue, you could set it on a holiday cloth, tie a red ribbon around the pot and flank it with candles to make things a little more festive. For about eight bucks at your nearest Trader Joe’s, it’s a very reasonable holiday plant.

Via Yahoo, 1800Flowers

Lead image photography by Johner Images