Ah, Christmas. That beautiful time of year when everyone starts thinking about pine trees, poinsettias, and cacti, candy canes and…
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|
|Height||Up to 2 feet|
|Water||Average, do not let it dry out|
|Fertilizer||Mild, every 2 weeks|
|Propagation||Cutting flowers only|
|Pests||Fungus 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.
The three commonly-known holiday cacti are named for when their blooms appear: Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Easter.
Christmas Cactus Care
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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 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.
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?). On top of that, there are a lot of good resources out there for propagating both christmas cactus and all sorts of other houseplants.
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.
These cacti can have the occasional issue like any other plant. Here’s how to handle some of the common 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.
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.
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.
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!