Cacti & Succulents, Specific Houseplants

Christmas Cactus Care: Holiday Cacti You’ll Love


Thanksgiving cactus in bloom

One of the most popular container houseplants is the Christmas cactus. Part of the holiday cactus gang, these are epiphytic cacti that are often exchanged in the holiday season. That’s because their blooming period occurs during the season of the holiday they are named for. 

What is the lifespan of a Christmas cactus? Well, you may want to put it in your will! Christmas cacti live up to 100 years. But don’t expect to be slaving to your cactus during the time you care for it. It’s a very easy, love-it-a-little-and-leave-it plant. 

The Christmas cactus is a holiday cactus species that gets lumped in with Thanksgiving cactus and Easter cactus. But this piece focuses mostly on the former two. If you’re one of those people wondering how to care for your Christmas cactus, look no further – we’ve dedicated this article to that very topic!

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Quick Care Guide

Christmas cactus
A fantastic shot of blooming Christmas cactus. Source: Timothy Borkowski
Common NameChristmas Cactus
Scientific NameSchlumbergera
FamilyCactaceae
Height & SpreadUp to 2 feet tall and wide
LightBright, indirect light
SoilSandy
WaterAverage, do not let it dry out
Pests & DiseasesFungus gnats, flower thrips, and root mealybugs, spider mites, Pythium and Phytophthora root rot, Botrytis blight, Impatiens necrotic spot virus, basal stem rot

All About Christmas Cactus

Christmas cactus leaves
Christmas cactus and Thanksgiving cactus have interesting jointed stems. Source: Starr

Christmas cacti are members of the Schlumbergera genus, a group of zygo cactus species named after a Frenchman who collected cacti in the 1800s. This plant became tied to holidays through its colorful flowers. Others in the holiday cacti group are the Easter cactus and Thanksgiving cactus. This succulent is native to the south-east Brazil coastal mountains, and reaches up to 2 feet in height and spread.

The tubular flowers of Christmas cactus bloom range from white to purple, depending on the type. In the wild, you’ll find them growing on rocks or tree branches, but a plant indoors will be happy in a pot. The branches of Christmas cacti may look like leaves, but they technically aren’t. Instead, photosynthesis occurs in the stem segments. 

The flower buds of a Christmas cacti plant bloom from small nodules called areoles. Christmas cactus blooms have 20 to 30 petal-like tepals which contain two series of stamens. These claw-shaped projections open in the fall and remain open for 4 to 6 weeks. 

Many Christmas cacti or Thanksgiving cacti can be grafted onto a dragonfruit plant, even though they aren’t the same species. They are also connected to other cacti in that they are perennial. 

Types of Holiday Cactus

The most well-known of the cacti in the holiday cacti category – next to the topic of this piece – are the Easter cactus (Schlumbergera gaertneriI) and Thanksgiving cactus (Schlumbergera truncata), also known as false Christmas cactus. There is also a hybrid species of holiday cacti, Schlumbergera x. buckleyii or Schlumbergera bridgesii, known commonly as Christmas cactus. Each of these is named for the time they bloom. Easter cactus has either red or pink blooms depending on whether or not the Easter cactus in question is a hybrid. Pink blooms indicate the Easter cactus is a hybrid! 

Christmas Cactus Care

Schlumbergera bridgesii
Schlumbergera bridgesii has distinctive flowers. Source: Beyond Forgetting

You may wonder, how do I care for my Christmas cactus plant or Schlumbergera species in general? It’s not difficult! Let’s talk about the basic care for a Christmas cactus, and how you can give it the best possible leg up for thriving. 

Sun and Temperature

Does Christmas cactus like sun or shade? Unlike their desert cousins, the Schlumbergera are not fond of too much direct sunlight from a sunny window. Indirect bright light will do just fine for the best blooms, though they will tolerate low amounts of light as well.​ This plant can survive ranges from 35 degrees to 100 degrees Fahrenheit but the healthiest range lies between night temperatures at 65 and 80 degrees during the day. Bring them inside if your outdoor temps go to the extremes, or if they are exposed to direct sun for too long.​ Because they have a limited height and spread, doing this throughout the year should be no problem. We’ll talk more about helping your Thanksgiving cactus and Christmas cactus flower buds open in a bit but know that you’ll need at least 8 days each year that have 16 hours of darkness and 8 hours of light. Christmas cacti are hardy to USDA zones 9 through 11, and a plant can even survive in South Carolina, in zone 8a.

Water and Humidity

How often do you water a Christmas cactus? Christmas cactus watering is a little different than other cacti. Most of us think of cacti as being drought tolerant, but that’s not the case with this particular type. Though it does store a small amount of moisture in its stem segments, it’s best to keep the soil moist and water when the first surface inch of soil is dry to the touch. Keep a regular watering schedule, or regularly check for soil dryness instead. Busy gardeners rejoice in having a plant that doesn’t need excess water. Water lightly in the morning at the base of the plant with a watering can. Ensure the pot’s drainage holes are wide enough to allow adequate flow out of the container. Cut back on watering in fall and winter to help flower buds form and bloom. However, if the soil feels dry, it’s best to irrigate. Some say Schlumbergera truncata prefers water beneath the container through the drainage holes. A Thanksgiving cactus, Christmas cactus, and holiday cactus, in general, appreciate a humid environment at 50 to 60%. A light misting daily via a few squirts from a spray bottle will do the trick. 

Soil

Schlumbergera truncata
Schlumbergera truncata, the false Christmas cactus. Source: douneika

Soil for Christmas cactus 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 holiday cactus. Thanksgiving cacti are included in this ​recommendation as well. Most potting soil designed for succulents and cacti will have adequate drainage. Poor quality soil isn’t recommended for Christmas and Thanksgiving cactus as they tend to need good quality nutrients between repotting. An addition of peat moss can help it retain moisture too. The ideal pH range for your holiday cactus is 5.5 to 6.2. 

Fertilizing

Fertilize two to four times a year (or every few weeks) with half-strength liquid, high-quality balanced houseplant fertilizer that has an NPK at 20-20-20. You may even find specialized Christmas cactus fertilizer on the market. As you get to know your Christmas and Thanksgiving cactus’ blooming pattern, skip the fertilizer a month before buds make their presence known. Typically, in late fall and winter, fertilize monthly or reduce your schedule to every four to six weeks.​

Pruning

Pruning after blooms have gone encourages branching out of the stems. Simply remove a few sections with a sharp blade. Hang on to those branches you’ve pruned for propagation and future Christmas cactus planting. Remove any 

Repotting Christmas Cactus

Your Christmas cactus plant will need to repot every 3 to 4 years, as they tend to get pot–bound easily. To encourage more active growth, wait until yours is finished blooming in late winter or early spring. Find a pot that is a couple of inches larger than the original. Then remove the entire plant from the original pot with the root ball intact. Gently loosen the roots and place them in the new container with a fresh potting medium, keeping the roots about an inch deep below the soil line. Then top off the soil with more of your growing medium. Add a small amount of water and let the Schlumbergera species grow in an area with indirect sunlight for a couple of days. 

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. It will be easiest to propagate Christmas cactus in late spring when its bloom time has passed, though you will likely have success in spring and summer as well. Let them dry and callous before planting them. This usually takes a couple of days. Dip them in rooting hormone, and plant the dried cuttings in vermiculite or cactus soil to grow a young plant from each. Cover each plant with a clear plastic bag secured with a rubber band. Place the pots out of direct sunlight in an area where they can get roughly 6 to 8 hours of indirect light per day. When the soil gets dry, remove the plastic bag and water the plant. Transplant them when you see active new growth, roughly ten weeks after you plant your cuttings. 

How to Get Your Christmas Cactus to Bloom

When does a Christmas cactus bloom? With minimal bright light and low enough night temperatures, you’ll have bud set and flowers in late fall. The flowering period of Schlumbergera bridgesii lasts through late winter. As we mentioned in the Sun and Temperature section above, cooler temperatures of early fall help your Christmas cactus produce more flowers. This includes indoor lighting. Too much sunlight will prevent flowering but too little light will do the same. Too much moisture or too little will reduce bloom time by causing buds to fall during bud set. Note that young plants will sometimes shed buds during their first year of growth. But not to worry. They will resume flowering the following year if you keep them healthy through the next spring and summer seasons. 

Troubleshooting

Thanksgiving cactus in bloom
A Thanksgiving cactus in full bloom. Source: Monica M Pinheiro

Now that we’ve discussed how to care for a Christmas cactus, and how to assist your plants during their flowering periods, let’s discuss a couple of issues that can arise. Like other plants in the succulent family, there are pests and diseases to look out for, and some growing problems as well.  

Growing Problems

Since we’ve already covered issues related to flowering (too much bright sun in winter, drier soil than is needed for the plant), we’ll talk about other issues. Too much or too little watering can cause limp leaves. Being a native to tropical forests, this plant prefers to draw moisture from the air, not from the roots. A soggy growing medium makes a sorry succulent in this case. If your Christmas cactus tends to maintain drier soil at all times, it may be root bound. That means it’s time to repot the plant into a slightly larger container, or it’s time to add a fresh batch of soil. Hanging baskets are also excellent containers for these plants. 

Pests

Spider mites leave webbing on the leaves of your beloved plant as they feed on the sap within the segments. Treat them with 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 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. When you irrigate, use a solution of neem oil diluted in water to eliminate any gnat larvae that might be chewing on the plant roots. You may have to start over and repot the plant into fresh mix and a clean container.​

If you see a waxy substance on the leaves, you’ve probably got a case of scale – specifically, mealy bugs. Mealybugs are little juice suckers with a tiny cotton ball appearance that can be scraped away if you catch them early. Use a spritz of insecticidal soap, or pop mealy bugs off individually into soapy water with an alcohol-soaked q-tip.​

Diseases

Pythium and Phytophthora root rot are parasites that cause a plant to wilt and die. Choosing a pasteurized potting mix (to avoid bringing them home in a bag) and getting rid of any other infected plant in proximity, will help reduce the chances of them choking the holiday spirit right out of your green gifts.

Botrytis blight is a fungus that loves humidity. If your plant has this blight, you may see dead blooms with a grayish growth on them. Apply a little neem oil or copper fungicide and control the amount of humidity through ventilation and temperature levels. Remove the damaged parts of your plant and wait to see if the problem gets any better. ​

Impatiens necrotic spot virus is often spread via western flower thrips. 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 thrips population as well with insecticidal soap or neem oil.​

Basal stem rot shows up as a brown stain at the soil line. This is a sign of dying tissues. Avoid injuring plants in that area and use a bit of fungicide for protection.​

Frequently Asked Questions

S. x buckleyi
S. x buckleyi produces red flowers if it’s not a hybrid. Source: Hans J E

Q: Does Christmas cactus like sun or shade?

A: It likes bright indirect light. 

Q: What is the lifespan of a Christmas cactus?

A: They can live for up to 100 years!

Q: How often do you water a Christmas cactus?

A: Water when the top inch of soil is dry. 

Q: How do I care for my Christmas cactus?

A: Read some of our fantastic care tips in this article for the best ways to care for your Christmas cactus!

Q: Should I water my Christmas cactus from the top or bottom?

A: Either works, but bottom watering is a useful way to prevent root disturbance.

Q: How many times a year does a Christmas cactus bloom?

A: Just once, in fall through winter. 

Q: Do I deadhead Christmas cactus?

A: No need! You want those blooms. Succulents don’t need encouragement in the same way herbaceous flowering plants do. 

Q: Are coffee grounds good for Christmas cactus?

A: They could be too acidic for the soil if the coffee hasn’t been brewed. Used or “spent” coffee grounds tend to be pH neutral and relative safe, but unnecessary for Christmas cactus.

Q: Should I mist my Christmas cactus?

A: Yes! It prefers 50 to 60% humidity, so a daily misting is best.

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.

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