Christmas Cactus plants are a popular choice for gifts and houseplant collectors. Their bright, tubular flowers adorn numerous windowsills and shelves.
Like some other houseplants, they are largely easy to care for. However, many people wrongly assume, partly because of their name, that the Christmas cactus is a cactus and therefore thrives in dry, arid conditions. In reality the natural habitat of the Christmas cactus (Schlumbergera) is the humid rainforests of South America. This misconception can lead to the plant struggling and failing to flower.
An easy to care for plant. Many people struggle to cultivate healthy Christmas cacti because they mistakenly believe that the plants require dry or arid conditions.
If you want to learn how to get the best out of your Christmas cactus, including how to get it to regularly flower, then this is the guide for you.
The Holiday Cactus Family
Christmas cacti are part of a group collectively known as the holiday cacti. This group also includes the Easter and Thanksgiving cacti. All three are similar in appearance and care requirements.
Named after the holiday that they tend to flower closest to, all three members of the holiday cacti group share similar features. This can make it difficult to tell them apart.
While they are strikingly similar, each plant does have a few distinctive features.
The flattened leaves of the Easter cacti are edged with rounded teeth. The flowers of this variety are broader and more daisy like in appearance than other Holiday cacti. They tend to flower in mid Spring.
The Thanksgiving cacti also has flattened leaves but these are edged with pointed teeth. The flowers are similar in appearance to that of the Christmas cactus. This means that the two are often confused. However the Thanksgiving cactus tends to flower in late fall, earlier than the Christmas cactus.
Finally the Christmas cactus also have flattened leaves. Like the Easter variety these are edged with rounded teeth. The Christmas cactus tends to flower in early winter, during the Christmas period.
Usually the surest way to tell which of the three you are dealing with is to note when is tends to flower. Each plant flowers closest to the holiday after which it is named.
Whatever variety of Christmas cactus you are caring for their requirements are largely the same. Making much of the following advice applicable to all varieties of Holiday Cacti.
Creating the Christmas Cactus
It’s difficult to tell exactly how the Christmas cactus cross came to be since it’s a hybrid. A lot of people claim that mixing the Schlumbergera with buckleyi is the original Christmas cactus. However, this hybrid is very rare today. For most of the commercially produced Christmas cactuses today, they’re the Schlumbergera truncata variety.
This cacti is the variety that has pink, white, yellow, and rose coloring on the flowers with deep green and slightly shiny foliage. The Easter cactus hybrid blooms later in the season, and it has more orange on the flowers than the other varieties.
Growing a Christmas Cactus
In the wild the Christmas cactus grows in humid, jungle type woodland conditions. The plants are usually found growing attached to a tree. As a houseplant they prefer semi-shaded positions, away from direct sunlight. This replicates the light levels they enjoy in the wild.
The more closely you are able to replicate the favored conditions of the cacti, the more success you will have with the plant. A cool, shaded location is key.
Daytime temperatures for the plant should average around 70 °F. Nighttime temperatures shouldn’t regularly drop below 60 °F. If your home is too warm, there are a number of simple tricks you can try to cool the space down without installing air conditioning.
Generally grown as a houseplant, during the warmer, summer months you will be able to place your Christmas cactus outside. Again, never place the plant in direct sunlight. Instead position it on a porch or similar shady location. Gardeners in the warmest climate zones may be able to leave the plant outside overnight during particularly warm spells. Remember to bring the plant back inside when temperatures start to fall towards 50 °F.
You could hang them up in a tree between the branches to make sure they don’t get a lot of light when they’re outside. After a heavy rain, drain the excess water off the pots to keep them healthy. Six to eight weeks before it blooms in the winter, put your cacti in a space where it gets 12 hours of darkness a day to help it go dormant.
Planting your Christmas Cactus
An adaptable plant, the Christmas cactus will do well in most soil types. While a loam based compost with added leafmould is often preferred a general purpose compost will be just fine. The main requirement is that the soil is well draining. To improve the soils drainage mix in a handful of grit. Placing the pot on a saucer or tray filled with gravel will help to maintain humidity levels.
Christmas cacti like to be slightly pot bound, this can encourage flowering. Consequently you will only need to re-pot the plant once every two or three years.
Holiday cacti rarely require regular repotting. When you do need to repot the plant remember to use fresh soil and a clean pot. This helps the plant to stay free from pests and diseases.
The best time to re-pot your cacti is at the end of March, just before the plant begins to grow again. Choose a pot that is either the same size or slightly larger than the current pot. Don’t be tempted to plant in a significantly larger pot. Holiday cacti like to be snug. An overly large pot could cause the plant shock. This may lead to growth slowing or flowers dropping. Your chosen pot should be clean and have drainage holes in the bottom. This guide is great if you want to learn more about growing plants in containers or pots.
Carefully remove the plant from the original pot and gently brush away any soil from its roots. Be careful not to damage the root system as you do this.
Position the plant in its new container. The top of the root system should sit just below the soil level. When you are happy with the position of the plant fill the container with soil. As you fill the container be careful not to compact the soil. Top dressing with compost or mulch will help to keep the plant cool.
Top dressing the soil with a layer of compost or mulch can help to keep the roots of a plant cool. However be careful, too thick a layer can lead to the plant retaining too much moisture. This, in turn, can cause the roots to rot.
Caring for Christmas Cacti
While the plant has a few requirements, the Christmas cactus is generally one of the easiest houseplants to care for.
Despite their name, Christmas cacti don’t like to sit in dry soil or arid conditions. Aim to water your plants regularly. Water when the top inch of soil feels dry to the touch.
If you are unsure how much water to give the best approach is to water until the water is running out of the drainage holes at the bottom of the pot. This tells you that the soil is thoroughly wet. Following watering allow the water to continue to drain from the pot. When the water stops draining return the plant to its regular location.
Christmas cacti, like many other plants, should never be allowed to sit in water for prolonged periods. This can lead to the roots of the plant rotting or becoming damaged.
Misting the plant during the warmer summer months will help to raise humidity levels. This recreates the rainforest environment from which Christmas Cactus plants originate.
Remember your Christmas cactus will require more water when buds are forming and when the plant is flowering.
Many people are reluctant to use alkaline or softened water on their houseplants. While softened water will not damage your plants, it can lead to sodium build up in the soil. If you don’t want to use water from the tap, why not try harvesting rainwater?
Humidity is another huge part of ensuring your plant stays healthy, but you don’t have to make it uncomfortably humid indoors. To raise the humidity levels directly around your plant, get a pot saucer that fits under your plant. Fill it with small pebbles or gravel until it’s around halfway full. Set the pot on top of the pebbles and fill the saucer with water until it barely goes over the pebbles. As the water evaporates, the humidity levels around the plant will rise.
If you want to give your plants an extra boost apply a well-balanced general purpose houseplant. A soluble version is easily incorporated into your watering routine. Alternatively why not try making your own liquid plant feed?
Feed the plant every 2 weeks from spring until fall. During the fall and winter months reduce feeding to once a month. You can use a half strength water-soluble formula or a bloom formula houseplant fertilizer. It should be a 20-10-20 or a 20-20-20 fertilizer.
You can also use a time-release balanced fertilizer that has a higher phosphorus content once a month. Once a month every other month, swap this fertilizer out with an Epsom salt mixed at a ratio of one teaspoon of Epsom salts to one gallon of water. This will help boost the magnesium levels
A compact plant, the Christmas cactus doesn’t require regular pruning. Older plants may become leggy or congested. To ease this remove some of the tips. Pruning away older or damaged leaves will also encourage the plant to produce fresh, healthy growth.
Always use a sharp scissors or small shears to prune plants. This helps you to make clean, precise cuts. These are far less likely to become infected and harm the plant than cuts made by a dull implement.
If you do need to prune your Christmas cactus, the best time to do so is in June. This will coincide with the plant waking from its post flowering dormant period. Pruning at this point encourages the plant to branch and produce more flowers.
Prune your Christmas cactus by cutting away one or two sections of each stem.
Christmas cacti are easily propagated. Take a cutting of one or two sections in length from a healthy stem. Cuttings can also be taken from the second joint of each leaf or tip.
Plant the cutting a quarter of its length deep in moist vermiculite. Slightly sandy soil is an effective alternative. Place the cutting in a light location. Avoid direct sunlight. Keep the soil moist. Signs of growth should be visible within a couple of weeks. When new growth is clearly visible replant the cutting in a new container filled with a mix of loose potting soil, sand and loam.
Encouraging Christmas Cacti to Flower
As we have already noted reducing the amount of light the plant receives can encourage it to bloom. Limiting the amount of water the plant receives, particularly during the fall, can also encourage flowering. While cutting down the amount of water the plant receives can encourage flowering, be careful not to let the soil dry out completely. Overly dry soil can lead to blossom drop. Finally remember that the Christmas cactus likes things on the cool side. A compost or mulch top dressing will help to keep the plant cool but be careful that it doesn’t lead to the soil retaining too much moisture. An average room temperature of 50 – 55 °F will also encourage the plant to flower.
You’ll start by giving your cacti between six and eight weeks of shorter days that have 13 to 16 hours of darkness per day. You’ll also lower the temperature during these weeks.
To start, move your Christmas cactus near a window in a room that has a temperature of 55°F and 60°F that you don’t use during the night. Cut back your watering, stop feeding your plant, don’t turn on the lights, and keep the door shut. After your cacti sits in this room under these conditions for six weeks, slowly bring the temperature back up to 60°F and let in more light. When you see small buds starting to form, move your cacti back to the main room and enjoy the show.
Christmas cacti flowers are distinctively tubular in shape. With the proper care and attention the plant can be encouraged to produce scores of attractive blooms on a regular basis.
When buds begin to form move the Christmas cactus to a sunny, draft free position. Don’t place the plant in direct sunlight. During this period the plant may require more water. How much water will depend on its location and growing conditions.
Post Flowering Care
After the plant has finished flowering it will enter a dormant or rest period. This will last for a couple of months, usually from January until March. During this period the plant will require less water. It may also appreciate cooler temperatures, around 55 – 59 °F.
Christmas Cactus Care Tips
Here are some care tips you can use for your cacti to make sure it grows and does very well for years after you get it:
- As soon as you notice that the top inch of soil has dried out, water your cacti. You want to soak the soil until water runs through the drainage holes and into your saucer. Once the water finishes running through, remove the saucer and dump out the excess water before returning it to your cacti’s pot. Don’t let the pot sit in water. Keep a very close eye on your cacti’s water levels when they’re flowering because they’ll need more to encourage healthy blooms.
- When you fertilize your cacti, feed it every two weeks starting in the spring and continuing on to early fall. Use a balanced fertilizer designed for house plants. Your cacti won’t grow in the late fall and winter months, so cut your fertilizer back to once a month. Use the same balanced fertilizer mix, and add in the Epsom salt mix.
- You shouldn’t prune your cacti until the start or middle of June. Pruning your cacti will encourage it to have more flowers around Christmas time. If you want more plants, put the cut pieces in your potting soil and propagate them. They root very easily.
- If it’s time for your plant to bloom but it stubbornly refuses to cooperate, the temperature and the amount of sunlight exposure could hold it back. In order to trigger your plant to bloom, you’ll need to have your days be 8 to 10 hours long with the nights up to 14 hours long in a cool environment for at least six weeks. If you have very strong lighting indoors and there’s nowhere to store your cacti, you may have to cover it up. It’ll only flower when the temperature stays between 50°F and 55°F.
- Your cacti may not bloom every year, but you shouldn’t panic. It’s normal for your cacti to shed its buds during one winter. The next winter, you should have blooms.
- If you notice your cacti has a woody or corky appearance along the base, this means that you’ve successfully raised the cacti enough that it’s starting to show signs of age. This is a very good thing.
Common Christmas Cactus Problems
With the right care and attention Christmas cacti are pretty much problem free.
The most common issue is a failure to flower. There are a couple of potential causes for this. It is usually caused by the plant is receiving too much light. A Christmas cactus needs to receive between 12 and 14 hours of darkness each day for about 6 weeks before it will flower. If you are unable to provide natural darkness, covering the plant to create artificial darkness will work just as well.
Exposure to extended periods of darkness for a number of weeks is vital to encouraging blooms to emerge on the plant. Placing in too bright a location can also lead to the plants stems and leaves shrivelling.
The plant may also fail to flower if it is too warm. Christmas cacti like the temperature to average between 50 and 55 °F before it will flower. If you don’t want to move the plant to another room, there are a number of reliable methods you can use to cool the room down.
Christmas cacti may shed its buds. This is not a major problem. Blossom drop is usually a sign of stress. This can be caused by sudden changes in light or temperature levels. It can also be a sign that, when the buds were forming, the soil became too dry.
If your Christmas cactus sheds its buds don’t worry. Continue to care for it and it will form a new set of buds.
If the stems or leaves begin to shrivel it is usually a sign that the plant is sitting in a location that is either too warm or too bright. Relocating the Christmas cactus to a cooler, darker location will help.
Shriveling can also be an indication that the roots of the plant are deteriorating or struggling. This is usually caused by either underwatering or overwatering.
These cacti don’t like a lot of direct sunlight because it can cause damage to the leaves. One of the first warning signs you’ll notice with this cacti is that the leaves go from a lush green color to slightly red and discolored. The longer you leave the plant in the direct sun, the redder the leaves will get.
To fix this problem, move your cacti to an area that has less light. You can also try moving it away from the window if you have it indoors. For outside cacti, you want to move it to a partially-shaded area. We mentioned hanging it in a tree because the tree will shield it from the majority of the direct sunlight.
Black and Slimy Areas
This plant does have a problem with developing bacterial or fungal diseases. The biggest indicator of one of these diseases is that your plant will develop areas that are black and slimy to the touch. There’s not much you can do with these infections because it’ll spread throughout the plant. Instead, the best course of action is to throw the whole plant out and start from square one.
Root rot is a common problem with any houseplant you have, but it’s more common in plants that don’t have a good drainage system or the soil is too dense. Basically, the plant’s roots will start rotting away due to too much moisture, and it can be difficult to see until it progresses far along the plant.
The best thing you can do with root rot is prevent it from happening in the first place. If this isn’t possible, you can treat it by reducing the amount you water the plant. If the plant is sitting in water, make sure you discard any and set it on a dry saucer. Your soil should be one that allows for a high level of drainage, and don’t apply mulch to the plant to hold in moisture.
The Christmas cactus is a largely pest free plant. The most common issue is mealybug infestations. This is easily treated with an application of chemical or organic pesticide. Pruning away affected leaves will also help to control infestations. Pruning as soon as you notice the problem will also help to prevent it from spreading throughout the plant.
Holiday cacti can look great on a revamped coffee table in the center of a bright room. Just remember to make sure that they aren’t in a draft.
As we have seen the Christmas cactus, like the other holiday cacti, is a largely easy to care for houseplant. With regular watering and the correct positioning, such as in the center of your revamped coffee table in a light room, you will be able to enjoy a healthy plant. Furthermore, the plant will reward your efforts with scores of its distinctive tubular like flowers throughout the year. Proving that the Christmas cactus is not just for Christmas.