Christmas Cactus (Schlumbergera) Care Guide

Christmas Cactus Care

Ah, Christmas. That beautiful time of year when everyone starts thinking about pine trees, poinsettias, and cacti, candy canes and...

Wait, cacti?​

Yes, my friend. Specifically, the Schlumbergera, otherwise known as the Christmas Cactus. It has been a cherished Christmas tradition for many families since the early 1800s.

If this is your first time hearing about them, you may jump at this chance to add a new tradition to your family's holiday celebrations. As if you needed an excuse to add another plant to your collection, right?​

Christmas Cactus Overview

Common Name(s)Christmas cactus
Scientific NameSchlumbergera
FamilyCactaceae
OriginSouth america
HeightUp to 2 feet
LightDirect sun
WaterAverage, do not let it dry out
Temperature60-70°F
HumidityHigh
SoilSandy
FertilizerMild, every 2 weeks
PropagationCutting flowers only
PestsFungus gnats, flower thrips, and root mealybugs, spider mites.

This succulent is native to south-east Brazil coastal mountains. Named the Schlumbergera after a Frenchman who collected cacti in the 1800s, this plant became tied to holidays through their colorful flowers. The christmas cactus bloom ranges from white to purple, depending on the type.

Types of Christmas Cactus

There are six species of this cacti, grouped into two categories: Truncata and Buckleyi.

  • Kautskyi
  • Microsphaerica
  • Opuntioides
  • Orssichiana
  • Russelliana​

The three commonly-known holiday cacti are named for when their blooms appear: Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Easter.​

Christmas Cactus Care

A fantastic shot of blooming christmas cactus from Timothy over at Kicking Designs

Proper christmas cactus care may be a bit different from what you'd expect of the usual desert cacti, as these are tropical rainforest succulents. That being said, even the laziest gardener won't be hassled with this easy-going greenery. Take special note of the following information on how to care for a christmas cactus.​

Temperature

This plant can survive ranges from 35 degrees to 100 degrees but the healthiest range lies between 65 and 80 degrees. Bring the little beauties inside if your outdoor temps go to the extremes.​

Light

Unlike their desert cousins, the Schlumbergera are not fond of too much direct sunlight. Bright, indirect light will do just fine for the best blooms, though they will tolerate low amounts of light as well.​

Water

Most of us think of cacti as being drought tolerant, which isn't necessarily the case with this particular type. Though it does store a small amount of moisture in its leaves, it's best to water when the first surface inch of soil is dry.

That may mean not keeping a regular watering schedule, thanks to variations in humidity and temperature, but checking regularly for soil dryness instead. Busy gardeners rejoice in having a plant that doesn't need a constant showering of water!​

Soil

Christmas cactus soil can be made yourself using one part sand and two parts potting soil or you can purchase mixes designed especially for succulents. As long as it is well-draining, of course, it doesn't take much to have a happy cactus.​

Fertilizer

A fertilization plan of two to four times a year with high-quality 20-20-20 is all you need to feed these babies. As you get to know your plant's blooming pattern, skip the fertilizer a month before buds make their presence known.​

Repotting

Often when an ornamental plant is purchased, it comes in a small pot and may outgrow the pot. If the reader needs to repot the plant, how would they do it?​

Pruning​

Pruning after blooms have gone will encourage branching out of the stems. Simply remove a few sections with a sharp blade. What to do with those cut pieces? I'm getting to that next.​

Propagation

Christmas cactus propagation is easy peasy. While you're going about pruning, you can propagate the cut sections by placing them in moist vermiculite to root into new plants. (See? I didn't make you wait too long, did I?)​

Blooming

If you want a little more control over your christmas cactus bloom timing, pay close attention to the amount of light and temperatures your area experiences. Shortening the amount of light during the day (allowing around 12 to 14 hours of complete darkness) and dropping the temps to about 50 degrees at night, along with less watering, will mimic the ideal conditions for blooming.​

Problems

These cacti can have the occasional issue like any other plant. Here's how to handle some of the common problems.

Growing Problems

Limp or Wilted Leaves

Your watering habits may be to blame for this issue. Too much or too little watering can cause limp leaves. Being a native to tropical forests, it prefers to draw moisture from the air, not from the roots. Soggy roots make a sorry succulent in this case. Check for drainage backup as well.​

Another solution may include repotting into a slightly larger container or even just a fresh batch of soil. Don't go crazy and move the plant from an apartment-sized container to a mansion-sized container; though you may like thousands of square feet to wiggle your toes in, they prefer tighter living spaces.​

Pests

If the above suggestions didn't help with wilting issues, there may be a pest or disease involved. Check these out and see if they're a match for your situation.​

Spider Mites – Seeing some webbing on the leaves of your beloved plant? Spider mites are probably to blame. Try a little insecticidal soap. And as much as you may detest the chore, make sure you keep your plants' home dusted. Spider mites love dusty places.

Fungus Gnats – These actually might be more annoying to you than to your plants. However, they can cause damage in large numbers. Make insecticidal soap your ally and avoid soggy soil. You may have to start over and repot into fresh mix and a clean container.​

Scale – If you see a waxy substance on the leaves, you've probably got a case of scale. These little juice suckers can be scraped away if you catch it early, or you can use—did you guess?—a spritz of insecticidal soap.​

Diseases

Pythium and Phytophthora Root Rot – These parasites cause the plant to wilt and die. Choosing a pasteurized potting mix (to avoid bringing the little buggers home in a bag) and getting rid of other infected plants will help reduce the chances of them choking the holiday spirit right out of your green gifts.

Botrytis Blight – Unfortunately, much as our Christmas tropical succulent appreciates a little humidity, so does this fungus. You may see dead blooms with a grayish growth on them. Apply a little fungicide and control the amount of humidity through ventilation and temperature levels.​

Impatiens Necrotic Spot Virus – The tricky part about this virus is that your plants may be carriers without any symptoms at all, a most frustrating nemesis. If you suspect any of your plants displaying odd signs of infection, better to toss them. Make sure to control your thrip population as well.​

Basal Stem Rot – Just as it sounds, you'll see a brown stain at the soil line, the sign of dying tissues. Avoid injuring plants in that area and use a bit of fungicide for protection.​

FAQs​

Goal: To answer common problems and questions about planting, caring for, harvesting, or storing this plant.​

Q. I'm having a hard time rooting my christmas cactus in water. What's going wrong?

A. While you CAN root many plants in water, it's not often recommended. Christmas cactus is one that prefers to be rooted in moist vermiculite or cactus mix. You will have a much higher success rate with this method.


Are you bored with the same old poinsettias and tiny pine trees bedecked with little ornaments you see in every store at Christmastime? Are you looking for a different gift for friends, family, and coworkers to go with that bottle of wine you bring to the party? (Conveniently forgetting that second bottle at home, of course.)

Consider the beautiful flowers and pleasing green stems of the Christmas Cactus. You just may start a new tradition or surprise someone with an old tradition they used to love.

Tell me your stories of this delightful plant in the comments, share this article with your friends if they are looking for new varieties to add to their greenhouse, and pepper me with any questions keeping you up at night. Thanks for stopping by!​

  • GRACE WHITE

    I HAVE AN OLD CHRISTMAS CATUS , SOME OF THE LEAVES ARE PINKISH
    AND SOME ARE GREEN . IT HAS BEEN THIS WAY FOR A FEW YEARS .CAN YOU TELL ME IF THIS IS NORMAL , OR WHAT COULD BE THE CAUSE ?

  • Barb Lutters

    ? TOO much sun for too long a time.

  • Bobbi Pugh

    My Christmas Cactus is blooming now! What should I do so it will bloom @ Christmas too?
    Thanks!

  • TERRY S.

    This is a very informitive web page. I had some questions about Poinsettias, and found what I needed.

  • Laurie K

    My Christmas Cactus is looking pale, but it’s loaded with buds that haven’t opened for about a month. What should I do?

  • pittsginnyp

    My Christmas Cactus has green and pinkish leaves.What causes this? I’ve had it for many years and have not seen this before? Also, part of the plant rotted off? I feed it cactus food once a week. What does it need?

  • PlantLady

    Grace and pittsginnyp….Mine has never had any pink on the leaves, so I did a little research for you. From what I can find out, it can happen when the plant starts to receive more or brighter sun and it doesn’t do any harm to the plant. It seems it’s not uncommon for this plant to have either a pinkish or purplish color in the leaves during the summer months when there’s more sun.

    pittsginnyp.. as far as part of the plant rotting, it could be basal stem rot which is caused from the soil being too damp. The best thing to do is to remove any effected parts of the plant and cut back on watering. If you’ve had it for many years and have always feed the plant once a week that might not be the problem, but it’s recommended to feed them no more than once a month through the growing season.

    Laurie..If your plant is looking “bleached” out it’s probably getting too much direct sunlight. In the wild, this plant actually lives in the crooks of tree branches where it doesn’t get a lot of bright sunlight. As far as the buds, from what I have read they won’t open if the plant isn’t getting enough light or humidity.

  • Mojo

    I love Christmas cactuses I gust got one it was $3.00 insed of $10 and it has one or to budes and a cuppel segments of the stim/leaf thinges fel of and the tipes of some of the other ones have like browen on them is that normil if not wut cases it and how can I fix it

  • kerry

    I have an old christmas cactus someone gave me that never bloomed in a coupple years, what should i do. i have already removed the hard old soil and re-planted it in a large pot with lots of new soil.

    • Rebecca Garner

      Christmas cactus blooms best when near root bound. My plant was looking a little rough and I repotted into larger pot. The plant did not bloom for 4 years or until the plant caught up with the size of the pot I had used.

  • Joan MacDonald

    I was just given a beautiful two coloured blossom Christmas Cactus, I’ve read directions for exp0sure indoors, was wondering if it could be placed in a south window that has vertical blinds.

  • Rosalyn

    Just received a christmas cactus and since I have a “brown thumb” I would like to keept this one alive.

  • Jim Gallagher

    The leaves on my christmas cactus are soft and sickly looking The plant looks like it is about to die – in two years it has never bloomed. Any advice welcomed.

  • Christine

    My C. Cacti sits outside all summer then into the garage when cold temps start. When it starts being a hard frost on a regular basis I bring it in. By the middle of Oct I have buds. My question is, mine has beautiful buds all over and the buds appear to be getting somewhat larger but they are not opening. This has been going on since before Halloween and now it’s Thanksgiving and it still hasn’t opened. Thankfully the buds haven’t fallen off. What’s up?? Do I just have a really slow bloomer?

  • Cheryl Davis

    Bought a beautiful christmas cactus full of blooms and buds. Got it home and all the buds began dropping off. Tempature was not an issue. What could have happened.

  • Rodney

    Put it in a place or cover it with a box for 12 to 14 hours each night. When buds start showing you can stop. Good luck:)

    • Rodney

      I meant to say put it in a place where it gets 12 to 14 hours of darkness a night.

  • Debbie

    Mom left me red Christmas cactus that we had for over 5 yrs. . Have not repotted ant keep moist. On porch or indoors indirect sun. Still blooming at least a couple
    Times annually . Should I repot, leave out, fertilize ?Has great sentiment value .
    Thanks for your help. Happy Holidays

  • Sharen

    I just bought a young Christmas cactus it was very cold when I took it from the store. Time I got in the house some of the leaves were black the tops were still green.
    i took the black leaves off and put the others in water. I’ d like to know if this plant still has a chancee to grom and look like it should.

  • andrea lehmann

    Hi I just received my first ever Christmas Cactus. It has no blooms at all. Is this normal and how do I ensure keeping it healthy? By bright indirect sunlight where is the best place to keep it? I have a large double window with two separate blinds. Would opening one and leaving one closed be too much light?

  • Alana

    My cactus love the eastern exposure in my kitchen in the bay window. If they are in a room that is not lit up at night they should bloom. Too much water will rot it and the stems will fall off or get soft. If I move them from where they like it they won’t bloom as well or not at all.

  • Paula

    My Christmas cactus is getting hard stems like wood. Is it sick or is this normal.

  • Rose

    This is my first Christmas and it is blooming and healthy. I keep reading on how to care for it and it says not to over water it. I keep mine in a glass jar with the soil that was in the pot and I filled the jar with water, the christmas cactus seem to love it and is blooming and no rotting leaves or stem. I keep it by a window away from direct sunlight. My question is why did my camas cactus not die from sitting in too much water???

  • A friend

    I have owned my Christmas cacti for about 8 years and she is beautiful. Unfortunately, she is getting so big around that I have trouble placing her somewhere safe. I can’t put her outside because the summers are just too hot without enough shade. My question is, can I carefully “tie” her up so that her stems are standing more upright? Currently she is about 3′ wide. She is a double cacti.

    • Aw, so sorry to hear! But glad you’ve had her for 8 years. I think you should be able to tie her up *very* carefully.

      • A friend

        Kevin, what would be the best thing to use on her to protect her? Appreciate the help!