10 Reasons Your Christmas Cactus is Dying and How to Revive It
Is your Christmas cactus looking a bit on the rough side? If you think your beloved succulent is dying, there are actually several reasons this may be happening. The good news is, many of them are reversible. in this article, gardening expert Madison Moulton looks at ten different reasons your plant may be dying off, and how to revive it.
Christmas Cactuses are a holiday season must. Their bright, colorful flowers and glossy green leaves improve any holiday décor display. Plus, at the end of the season, you’ll have an interesting houseplant to grace your shelves and tabletops till they are ready to shine again the following year.
Unfortunately, keeping these plants alive can be tricky. Getting them to flower reliably is even more difficult, which is why many people opt for other plant alternatives. However, understanding these plants can turn something that’s a little more difficult to manage into a beautiful houseplant.
If your Christmas Cactus is showing signs of struggle, there are many potential causes. Luckily, there are also many easy fixes that should return your plant to good health in no time. Let’s take a look at the most common issues you’ll run into, as well as solutions to fix each problem.
Overwatering is the number one houseplant killer. Plants love water but don’t like sitting in it for extended periods of time as this stops oxygen from reaching the roots and encourages bacterial and fungal growth in the soil. The Christmas Cactus is no different.
These plants prefer soil that dries out slightly before the next watering. When the plant is flowering, watering can be increased slightly. If you water when the top layer of soil is still moist, or if your pot or soil doesn’t have sufficient drainage, you risk overwatering the plant.
An overwatered Christmas Cactus will have yellow leaves and may begin to go limp. If the soil stays continually moist, it is also a sign that the roots aren’t taking up any water. Roots exposed to too much moisture will begin to rot, stopping them from taking up water and essential nutrients needed for the plant’s survival.
How To Fix:
If you think you may have overwatered your plant, check the roots for signs of root rot. No damage means your plant should bounce back with a change in your watering routine. Any mushy or rotten roots should be removed with a clean pair of scissors before repotting the plant into completely new potting soil.
Due to the ‘Cactus’ in the common name, many gardeners also tend to underwater their Christmas Cactus. These plants are not quite like other cactuses that can go weeks on end without water. Thanks to their succulent-like leaves, they do store a lot of water but prefer more moist soil than you may expect. They shouldn’t be planted directly in rocks.
The soil should not be left to dry out completely before the next watering. A balance between letting the soil dry out and maintaining enough moisture to keep the plant happy is important. Without water, the plant cells won’t be able to hold the plant up. Nutrients in the soil also won’t be transported around the plant.
Signs of underwatering can be similar to overwatering. The plant will go limp, with the leaves falling over the pot rather than standing on their own. They may also shrivel and turn a pale green color. Left like this, they will dry out completely and eventually fall off the plant.
How to Fix:
Luckily, the fix is simple – increase how often you water. After a few weeks, the plant should return to normal. If the soil is very dry and compacted, loosen it before watering by poking holes in it with a skewer. Bottom watering is also recommended for compacted soil as the soil will slowly draw as much moisture as it needs, completely saturating it.
Lack of Sunlight
Christmas Cactuses, unlike the common cactuses you find in desert conditions, are found in tropical forests growing attached to trees. They don’t need direct sunlight and can handle low light conditions well, even indoors. However, too little or no light can cause a few problems.
Plants need sunlight to fuel photosynthesis. Without this energy, they cannot produce the sugars necessary to keep the plant alive. Without sunlight, plants cannot grow correctly (or at all), and will slowly die.
Lack of sunlight also prevents one thing all Christmas Cactus owners look forward to – flowers. While they do need periods of darkness in fall to trigger flowering, they also need enough energy to actually put out flowers when the time comes. They should stay in bright indirect during the day and in a completely dark room at night (only in fall) for successful flowering.
While you may see them described as tolerant of low light, that does not mean a dark room with no windows. Move the plant to a spot with bright indirect light (they can even handle some direct sun) to stop growth problems.
How to Fix:
The fix here is fairly straightforward. You’ll need to move your plant into the sunlight at certain times of day, or permanently change the location of your plant so it gets better sunlight, which will then stimulate growth.
Too Much Sunlight
Like the underwatering issue, the cactus designation is the problem here. Some may assume that the succulent-like leaves of this plant mean they love direct sunlight. However, that is not the case. They may be able to handle some direct sunlight, but too much can scorch the leaves and cause problems with growth.
In their natural habitats, Schlumbergera lives under the protection of forest canopies. They receive dappled sunlight for most of the day, equal to our bright or filtered indirect light indoors. Like other houseplants, they struggle in direct sunlight and may go into survival mode if conditions persist.
The most common sign your plant is getting too much sunlight is a color change in the leaves. Rather than being green, they will gain a purple or red hue that intensifies the longer the plant is left in the sun. The leaves may also begin to wilt or wrinkle over time.
How to Fix:
Direct sunlight is not always a bad thing in small doses. Especially in winter, Christmas Cactuses appreciate some direct morning sun. However, harsh afternoon sunlight or direct sun in winter will damage the plant and can cause leaf tissue to die off. Move the plant to a spot with bright indirect light for protection.
Lack of Nutrients
All plants need macro and micronutrients to survive. In the first year or two of growth, your cactus will get all the nutrients it needs to survive from the soil it is planted in, as well as any additional fertilizers added before the plant went on sale. But, after a while, these nutrients become depleted, with nothing left to help the plant grow.
In forests, nutrients are continually provided by decaying plant materials that keep the nutrients in the soils below balanced. When planting in containers, there is nothing to replenish the soil nutrients over time. The nutrients also wash out quicker than usual due to the regular watering of the plant.
The first sign of nutrient deficiency is lack of new growth and lack of flowering. Over time, the leaves may become weaker and diminished, turning yellow in spots or unusual patterns. But lack of flowers should be the first indicator that you may have a nutrient problem.
How to Fix:
As these plants are not particularly fertilizer-dependent, it’s important to make sure lack of nutrients is the problem before attempting to fix it. If the soil structure is still good, apply a balanced houseplant fertilizer once a month from mid-spring to fall. If the plant has been in the same pot for several years and the soil has broken down, repot the plant instead.
The Pot Is Too Small
In the right conditions, Christmas Cactuses grow relatively quickly. Their root systems spread to fill a pot in no time. And, while they do prefer being slightly crowded in the pot in order to flower, they cannot be left in these conditions for too long.
Rootbound houseplants that have used up all their available space will eventually stop growing. The roots begin to wrap around the bottom of the pot, crossing over each other and restricting growth. You may also see roots popping out the bottom of the drainage holes or on top of the soil.
Crowded roots struggle to take up water and essential nutrients. With these restrictions, signs of underwatering or nutrient deficiency may present themselves, even if you’ve been watering and feeding correctly. Lack of growth or limp, wilting leaves, and roots circling the bottom of the pot indicate it needs to be repotted as soon as possible.
How to Fix:
The process of repotting is simple. Choose a pot one or two sizes up, prepare a similar soil mix to the one the plant is currently in, and move it over. Ensure you water thoroughly after planting and put your plant back in the same spot to prevent shock.
Christmas Cactuses are epiphytes that grow along tree branches in their native areas. They also have succulent-like leaves that hold a significant amount of water. From these characteristics, you should be able to tell that they require very well-draining soil to thrive.
The ideal soil mix for Christmas Cactuses is a combination of potting soil amended with river sand to improve drainage and increase the spaces between soil particles. If potted into a soil mix that is too dense, such as regular garden soil, oxygen will not reach the roots and the soil will hold on to too much water, resulting in root rot.
Using incorrect soil will lead to the same problems caused by overwatering, even if you don’t water that often. The leaves will go limp and yellow as a result of the excessive moisture. The stems may also break off from the base of the plant completely if they start rotting at the top layer of soil.
How to Fix:
The key to preventing soil issues is to use the right soil when repotting from the start. But, if your plant is in the wrong soil, repot as soon as possible using a mix of equal parts potting soil and sand. Wash all the old soil off the plant before repotting, especially if you encounter any root rot.
Temperature or Humidity
Christmas Cactuses are very fussy about temperature and humidity, especially if you want them to flower. They prefer temperatures around 70F – cooler than what many other houseplants prefer – but need even cooler temperatures in fall and winter around 60F to develop flower buds.
However, they are still tropical plants and cannot handle excessively cold weather. Anything below 50F for extended periods will result in tissue and cell damage in the plant, causing those parts exposed to the cold to die off. On the opposite end of the spectrum, if the temperatures are too high indoors around fall, the plant will not flower.
Humidity is also a factor. Christmases Cactuses love areas with very high humidity as they are used to drawing moisture from the air. If the air is too dry, the plant will not flower, buds may fall off, and the leaves will begin to wrinkle.
How to Fix:
If there are any conditions to keep consistent for a healthy Christmas Cactus, they are temperature and humidity. Keep daytime temperatures around 70F and nighttime temperatures around 60F for the best results.
Sometimes the reasons for your plant’s demise are completely out of your control. That is certainly the case with these few pesky pests that invade your home and attack your plants. Christmas Cactuses are quite susceptible to various pests and diseases. Most are relatively harmless, but others can wreak havoc if left untreated.
The usual houseplant pest suspects – aphids, gnats, and mealybugs – are always a risk. They can feed on the foliage or roots of the plant, resulting in deformations in the leaves and stunted growth. These pests can also spread to the rest of your houseplants, causing the same issues.
To control aphids and mealybugs, apply neem oil or a homemade insecticidal. They can hide out under leaves and even in the soil, so it may take a few applications at one or two-week intervals to completely get rid of the problem.
How to Fix:
Also keep an eye out for spider mites, scale, and thrips. Many pests will lay their eggs on the foliage of the plant or close to the soil, multiplying until they are almost impossible to control. Ensure you apply neem oil over the eggs too to prevent them from hatching and attacking your plants.
Pests are not the only problem to watch for. Diseases are equally insidious and are often harder to treat if they can be treated at all.
Root or stem rot is most common, caused by funguses that hide out around the soil. Root rot is identified by the same signs as overwatering, while stem rot is easy to spot at the base of the plant or when entire stems begin to fall off at the base.
If left too late, root rot will kill the plant, so it’s vital to repot immediately in new soil to avoid carrying over the fungus. Stem rot is more problematic as it typically affects most parts of the plant, leaving it without any foliage and thus no way to survive. Instead, salvage all the unaffected leaves and propagate them to grow new, healthy plants.
How to Fix:
Although they are less common, it’s also important to keep an eye out for blight and Necrotic spot virus. Remove all affected foliage, improve airflow, and control pests to limit and resolve these issues.
Christmas Cactuses are the joy of the season. But, when they’re not healthy and thriving, they can also be a huge letdown. They need the right blend of sunlight and proper nutrition to successfully thrive. If your plant is dying as a result of any of these problems, ensure you apply the appropriate fixes where possible to get it back to its former glory.