How to Grow and Care For a Christmas Cactus
Thinking of adding a Christmas Cactus to your indoor or outdoor gardening space? These popular succulents aren't only popular during the holiday season. In this article, gardening expert and houseplant enthusiast Madison Moulton takes you through everything you need to know about the Christmas Cactus and their care.
The Christmas Cactus is one of the few plants used as indoor plants that will bloom during the coldest days of the year. For a fuss-free festive plant, this one will make a statement and provide some extra color.
These beauties are easy to grow in hanging baskets, requiring just water, correct lighting, the occasional feeding and well-draining soil. They are rewarding plants that come in a variety of flowering colors and are beautiful even when they are not flowering. The cascading nature of the plant makes it good for eye level and higher placement in the home.
There are 6 species of Schlumbergera, all of which are spineless cactus species that grow naturally like epiphytes on trees and in other shady places in tropical rainforests. Although we grow Christmas Cactus in soil in pots, the fact that they are epiphytes should be remembered to treat them a bit differently from other plants – especially the desert-type cacti.
So, if you’ve decided you’d like to own a Christmas Cactus, but want to know all the details of their maintenance and care, keep reading as we take a deeper look at these amazing plants.
Christmas Cactus Plant Overview
Plant Type Houseplant
Species Schlumbergera buckleyi or bridgesii
Native Area Southeast Brazil
Exposure Bright indirect light
Height 2′ long
Watering Requirements Medium
Pests & Diseases Mealybugs, aphids, thrips
Soil Type Succulent & cacti mix
Bloom Time Fall, winter
About The Christmas Cactus
There is much confusion around the botanical names of the Christmas Cactus which often gets confused with the Thanksgiving Cactus.
Previously called Epiphyllum bridgesii, this plant belongs to a group of succulent cacti plants that come from the tropical regions of Central and South America. It was also known by the name Ephiphyllum russellianum. It was then renamed Schlumbergera bridgesii (apparently incorrectly) and is also now known as Schlumbergera buckleyi. To make matters more confusing, it is sometimes also called by its parent plant name Schlumbergera truncata.
In other parts of the world, they are often referred to as Zygocactus. This refers to the leaves being flat and fleshy with joints and flowers at the ends – ‘Zygo’ meaning joining or pairing.
The reason for this confusing and quite long explanation is because you will see these plants labeled using these various botanical names in nurseries. To add to the chaos, sometimes a Thanksgiving Cactus could be mislabelled as a Christmas Cactus and the only way to discover the mistake is when they flower too early.
Make sure you purchase from a reputable seller and do your research to ensure you get the plant you want.
Comparing Holiday Cacti
Holiday Cacti commonly refer to Christmas Cactus (Schlumbergera buckleyi), Thanksgiving Cactus (Schlumbergera truncata) and Easter Cactus (Hatiora gaertneri). They make look very similar but there are ways to tell the difference between them.
Firstly, the leaf shape between them is different. The Thanksgiving Cactus has sharp hooks on the scalloped edges of the shield-shaped leaves. The Christmas Cactus doesn’t have sharp bits and is more rounded. The Easter Cactus leaf shape is more rounded on the edges.
Secondly, the flowering time is suggested by their names, with the Thanksgiving Cactus flowering about a month before the Christmas Cactus and the Easter Cactus only flowering much later, starting to bud in February.
Thirdly, the flowers of each of the cacti are slightly different. The Christmas Cactus has blooms that look similar to that of a fuchsia, drooping downwards on the ends of the succulent stems. The anthers are usually brown or purple. You will more than likely find them in colors red, pink yellow and white.
The Thanksgiving Cactus on the other hand has anthers that are yellower in color. The flowers can be peach, orange-red and purple.
Easter Cactus flowers are the easiest to identify as they are more starburst-shaped and distinctly different from the other types. In general, the colors of the flowers will be red, pink, orange, peach and white.
Lastly, if you look at the growing habit of each of them, they are slightly different. It’s sometimes difficult to tell as plants may be young, but Christmas Cactus starts off with an upright growth habit moving to a cascading one as the plant matures.
Thanksgiving Cactus has an upright growing habit and will continue as it matures. The Easter Cactus will cascade as it matures but it is a smaller plant than the other two.
Their native region is the tropical area of Southeast Brazil. As a succulent-type plant, it is often confused with the more desert-type succulents which will have completely different growing conditions. They grow under the canopy of trees in dappled shade, loving high humidity and high temperatures.
These plants are only grown outdoors in the warmer USDA Zones 10 – 12. However, if you can replicate the temperature requirements they require in your home, there is no reason why they can’t be grown in colder regions indoors.
Take note of the growing conditions before you invest in one of these lovely low-maintenance plants to make sure you give them just what they need. This way, they will be rewarding and long-living in your home.
How to Grow
If you’ve decided to add a Christmas cactus to your plant collection, then it’s important to make sure you satisfy their growth needs. You can do this by optimizing every aspect of their growth and maintenance. Let’s look at the most common aspects of caring for these plants and their growth.
When the plants are showing off their blooms, they need bright light. However, in the dormant stages when the plant is not flowering, they need much darker conditions to rejuvenate.
Too much sunlight will cause the plant to turn yellow and fail to flower the next season. The plants can be put outside in a shaded area under trees or on a patio during the summer months in Zones 10 – 12.
Indoors, place them near an east-facing window or in a bright bathroom or kitchen. Too much sunlight will bleach the color of the leaves. Only allow the plant to get direct sunlight in the winter months when the sun is weaker and will not harm the leaves.
As a tropical plant, it should be kept moist most of the time, although it can be allowed to dry out a little between waterings. Never allow the plant to become water-logged or stand in a saucer or tray of water as their epiphytic roots are sensitive. If the plant starts to shrivel, it’s not getting enough water.
It’s important to let the plant rest for a period between February to March. At this time, keep the soil quite dry. After the spring flush, the plant needs to rest again from October to November and the soil needs to be dryer again. Just make sure to keep an eye on the plant and water in dry hot conditions.
Grow in pots with a soil mix that is well-draining. Increase the drainage of the soil by mixing equal parts potting soil and drainage materials like perlite, vermiculite and bark.
A soil that is typically produced specifically for succulents and cacti will also do the job. They prefer soil with a pH level of 5.5 – 6.2, a more acidic soil. If you need to bring the pH down, add some peat moss to the mixture, but not so much that it retains too much moisture.
Temperature and Humidity
The ideal temperature for these plants is around 70F, although fluctuation between 60F – 70F is still manageable. When at rest, these plants prefer temperatures of 55F – 60F, but less than 50F will likely be fatal.
Sudden changes in temperature may also affect your plants, causing any buds to drop.
Increase humidity around the plant with pebble trays or a humidifier to match the jungle-like conditions they love. Make sure the base of the container doesn’t sit in water, which may lead to root rot.
These plants love a good dose of extra magnesium, administered by adding one teaspoon of Epsom salts to one gallon of water and applying every month from spring to fall.
They also benefit from feeding with a balanced liquid fertilizer, especially around flowering time. Never apply more than what is recommended on the packaging to avoid damaging the roots and preventing flowering.
In late spring, the plants can be pruned by trimming off a few sections of leaves to encourage new growth and flowering. The more branches, the more flowers as they only form on the ends of branches.
Don’t forget to use this opportunity to take cuttings to propagate new plants.
Deadhead any spent flowers regularly to encourage more flowers. Also check for pests and diseases and give the plant a good wash if you see any signs of infestations by sucking insects. Treat with insecticidal soap for heavier pest problems.
How to Induce Flowering
All Holiday Cacti are known as short-day plants that require the shorter light of colder days to bloom. To get a plant to bloom, it needs 12 – 24 hours a day of cool temperatures and darkness to set bud. Placing the plant in an area like this will shock it into blooming at the correct time.
Teardrop buds will appear in November to bloom in time for the festive season. They will continue to bloom well into January. In general, the plant will need about 6 – 8 weeks of short cool days to start flowering naturally. If buds start to drop, it may be due to drafts, warm temperatures, direct sunlight or overwatering.
They can also rebloom in spring, but not as profusely as they bloom in colder weather. You can trick it into blooming in spring by giving it the 12 -24 cold and dark treatment.
Just before this, pinch off any small half-inch segments to improve the chance of flowering.
When it comes to propagation, there are two common ways it happens for this popular succulent. Typically they are propagated from seeds or cuttings. There are benefits and drawbacks to each. Let’s take a deeper look.
Propagating from Cuttings
The best way to propagate a Christmas Cactus is by stem or leaf cuttings. This should be done in early summer for the best results. This popular succulent can actually be grown from a single leaf.
Use a sharp pair of sterilized secateurs to take the cuttings and clean them to stop the spread of diseases between plants. Take cuttings of stem at least 3 segments long and leave to dry on newspaper for around 3 – 4 days for the cut ends to scar or callous over.
Plant in a damp mixture of equal parts of coconut coir and perlite to make a well-draining propagating mix. The coir will retain moisture and keep the stems happy while they root. Bury the cuttings at least an inch deep.
For the best results plant three cuttings in a large enough pot to leave them to continue growing. Cover with a plastic bag tied to the pot with a rubber band to create a mini ecosystem and keep the cuttings hydrated. Check on them regularly and once the plants have rooted in a few weeks, you can remove the plastic bag.
Propagating from Seed
Another way of propagating Christmas Cactus is from seed. Seed pods will usually appear in fall. Once they turn from green to red, they can be harvested.
Split open the pods, take out the brown seeds and wash away any pulp. Prepare a tray for sowing with a mix of coconut coir and perlite or vermiculite that has been dampened (but not too wet). Alternatively, sow the seed in compost or prepared cactus or succulent mix.
Sow the seed on top of the soil and press it down into the soil. Cover with a layer of vermiculite and cover with an airy plastic bag tied with a rubber band to the tray or leave in a greenhouse. This will keep the seeds moist until they germinate. Check on them regularly to make sure they have enough moisture.
Once the seeds start to shoot in about two weeks, remove the plastic. Mist with a spray bottle daily or place in a tray of water to allow the water to wick up through the drainage holes to the top of the soil. Remove any excess water after about 30 minutes to stop the new, vulnerable roots from rotting.
Once the seedlings are big enough to handle, they can be transplanted into their own pots to continue growing.
Christmas Cacti do like to be a little pot-bound but will do with a fresh boost of new potting soil every three years. It’s best to do this in spring after the plant has finished with its spring flowering flush.
Terra cotta or clay pots work well for these plants as the excess moisture is wicked away, preventing root rot. Be very careful when handling these plants while repotting as the leaf segments break off easily.
Exercise caution to prevent the plant from losing too many leaves and branches. The more branches there are, the more flowers you have, which after all is the point of growing these lovely plants.
This flowering succulent is relatively pest and disease free, however, there are some issues that can occur with improper maintenance if they are not remedied quickly. These issues can cause many problems, including the death of your Christmas cactus. Those issues are:
As a succulent plant, the worst thing you can do to your Christmas Cactus is overwater it. Luckily, if it hasn’t succumbed to a bacterial infection or a fungus by overwatering, you may be able to save it.
If you suspect root rot due to soft leaves and mushy roots, repot immediately. Cut off any infected areas and resume a proper care routine. Keep an eye out for signs of spread of the fungi to stop the problem in its tracks in the future.
Lack of Water
The plants will shrivel and parts will begin to die off if the plant is not kept properly watered. They will also drop their buds if at the flowering stage. Never leave them to dry out for long periods and water from the bottom if the plant appears underwatered.
If your plant turns a reddish brown, the sunlight levels are likely too high. Also, the leaves can also be bleached of color, which is a sign to move it to a shadier spot. These succulents tend to do better in bright, indirect light, but can also perform well in lesser lit areas.
These insects suck the flesh of the leaves, leaving a white powder residue behind that is easy to identify and may look like a fungus. If your plant begins to wilt and the leaves yellow, look out for signs of these pests and treat with neem oil or insecticidal soap.
They may also stunt the growth of the plants. Repeat any treatments as necessary.
Another type of sucking insect that feeds on the sap of plants. There are various beneficial insects that feed on these pests (like ladybugs), but you don’t often find these indoors.
Aphids attack the new growth and cause the plant to be stunted. They can be controlled by washing the plant thoroughly with soapy water or using insecticidal soap.
These are tiny sucking insects that are difficult to see with the naked eye. To check for them, place a sheet of paper beneath the plant, shake it and identify the fallen thrips by their tiny brown bodies with a magnifying glass.
Infected leaves may have to be pruned away. Also give the plant a good wash with soapy water and apply targeted treatment if the problem does not go away.
These little red spider-looking bugs are also sucking pests they are small and hard to identify on their own, but leave characteristic webbing behind that makes them much easier to spot.
Spider mites damage the upper side of the leaves, causing discoloration, lack of new growth and an overall dull appearance. Stipple marks on the leaves can look dusty and if infestations are high, you will see webbing start to cover the plants. Treat with insecticidal soap or alternative spray the plants with a commercial pesticide formulated for the control of spider mites.
These small flies feed on fungi and organic matter in the soil and eat the roots of plants. They are attracted by excess moisture in the soil. Use sticky traps to catch flying bugs and repot to remove eggs in the soil.
Frequently Asked Questions
How long do Christmas Cactus live?
With care, these plants will last longer than your lifetime and sometimes over 100 years. They become like family heirlooms getting passed down from one gardener to another. However, they need perfect conditions and attention to avoid succumbing to one of the problems mentioned above.
What do you do with a Christmas Cactus after flowering?
Continue to deadhead the spent flowers until the plant has completely finished flowering. Then, reduce watering and prepare the plant for rest until the next flush of flowers in spring.
When should you put a Christmas Cactus in the dark?
Starting in October, put the plant in a dark cool spot for at least 12 hours a day to force the plant to produce buds in time for Christmas. It needs about 6-8 weeks of cool temperatures and darkness to flower profusely on time.
Can I put a Christmas Cactus outside?
In warmer climates of USDA Zones 10 – 12, they can be planted outside under the shade of a tree or a dark patio. Never plant in full sun which will damage the leaves and give them a sunburn. Because they come from tropical areas, they will not do well in colder temperatures outdoors. Anything below 50F will lead to their demise.
With a little knowledge of how to care for these special plants, they will be a rewarding addition to any houseplant collection. When most houseplants are not flowering, these will produce brightly-colored blooms to brighten your winter.