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.

A beautiful blooming Christmas Cactus indoors with white and red leaves coming off the plant itself.

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

An image of a beautiful pink flower from a succulent. The focus is on the pink flower which has about 6 petals and is bright pink, taking up most of the space in the image.
Plant Type Houseplant
Family Cactaceae
Genus Schlumbergera
Species Schlumbergera buckleyi or bridgesii
Native Area Southeast Brazil
Exposure Bright indirect light
Height 2′ long
Watering Requirements Medium
Pests & Diseases Mealybugs, aphids, thrips
Maintenance Low
Soil Type Succulent & cacti mix
Bloom Time Fall, winter

About The Christmas Cactus

A Schlumberger blooming on the windowsill. It's in a black container, and is hanging over the container. You can see the strands of the plant all over, and the succulent is blooming with vibrant pink flowers all over the entire plant. The flowers are almost fuchsia in color.
This plant was known as Epiphyllum bridgesii but was later renamed Schlumbergera buckleyi.

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

A bright green succulent blooming in a small ceramic pot. You can see the succulent's leaves in much of the picture, and the focus is on the pink bloom that is extending from one leg of the plant. The bloom is a vibrant pink with red accents.
The main differences between the three types of cactuses are the shape of the leaves, the blooming time, and the type of flowers.

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.

Planting

A gardener holding a small succulent in their hand. The succulent is in a small black seed tray and was used for propagation. In the background, you can see a number of other succulents starting in their own individual seed trays.
If you create all the necessary growth conditions, then it will be long-lived in your home.

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.

Light

A succulent with with red flowers is growing in a white ceramic pot. The pot is sitting on the windowsill in bright indirect sunlight. The end of each succulent tendril has beautiful flowers, blooming in red and pink. In the background you can see a small glass jar with seashells as a decoration.
This plant prefers bright light for flowering, but it is recommended to place it in a shaded place during the dormant period.

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.

Water

A woman is spraying water on top of a christmas cactus in a terra cotta pot. The woman is wearing a patterned shirt which you can see in the frame. The spray bottle is clear, and the plant is the focus of the image. The succulent has long green tendrils, and the plant is blooming from many of the tendrils with bright pink flowers.
Water the plant regularly, but let the soil dry out between waterings.

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.

Soil

Schlumbergera cactus, gardening rake, pot, and soil are all sitting on a wood table. Much of the materials are sitting on a piece of burlap that's used to catch all the debris and prevent it from getting on the table.
This succulent prefers well-drained soil with a pH of 5.5-6.2.

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

A succulent is sitting on the table and is blooming in the light. Each plant tendril has a beautiful and vibrant pink bloom on the end of it.
This plant prefers to grow at temperatures around 70F.

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.

Fertilizing

Woman pours liquid mineral fertilizer into the watering can. She is wearing a jean shirt, and has blue gardening gloves. The watering can is made of plastic and is pink. On her left, you can see a succulent waiting to be watered.
Feed with a balanced liquid fertilizer during flowering.

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.

Maintenance

An up close image of a pink flower from a Christmas cactus plant. You can faintly see some of the green succulent tendrils but the focus is on the bright pink bloom. You can see the bloom is layered with several petals and layers to the bloom. They are longer, and have stamens coming out from the top.
It is recommended to prune some leaves in late spring to encourage new growth and 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

A succulent is in full bloom in a small white pot. It is sitting on a marble counter top with gray striations. The background is a white wall and curtain. The focus is the small green tendrils of the young succulent with the start of some very small pink blooms at the tip.
Buds begin to appear in November and bloom for the holiday season.

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.

Propagation

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

Small plant cuttings up close in their small planting containers. The succulents are waiting to be moved to their permanent location, and are young and green.
Plant the cuttings in moisture, well-drained propagating mix.

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

An image close up of a pink flower blooming from a succulent. The pink is vibrant and has a purple element to the color of the bloom. You can see the green succulent tendrils all around the plant but the focus is the pink bloom.
Seed pods appear in autumn and once they turn red, you can harvest them.

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.

Repotting

An image of a succulent waiting to be repotted. There is three containers, and one is empty. One is larger, and white, and has a succulent already planted in it. The other two containers are small, tan and plastic. One is empty, the other also has a small plant. There is a burlap cutting on the table with soil and gardening tools.
It is recommended to transplant the Christmas cactus every three years to fresh soil.

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.

Common Problems

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:

Overwatering

A succulent that is starting to die from root rot. You can see that the leaves are turning brown, and have some areas that are starting to tinge. The plant can still be recovered but looks like it will die without proper care.
Root rot can affect the plant due to excessive watering.

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

A person watering a succulent using a blue watering can. She is wearing a white patterned shirt. The succulent is in a small terra cotta pot, and is growing next to a window.
If the plant does not have enough water, then it will begin to drop its buds and begin to dry.

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.

Excessive Sunlight

Christmas cactus with leaves turning purple and red due to excessive sunlight. It is sitting on a windowsill and has likely had too much bright direct sunlight to thrive.
Due to excessive exposure to sunlight, the leaves may turn reddish brown.

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.

Mealybugs

Mealybugs are infesting a succulent. You can see the bugs up close which are red, but have a bit of white mildewy material on the top of them. They are eating the plant and likely killing it.
If you notice that your plant is starting to wither, inspect your plant for mealybugs.

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.

Aphids

A group of young green aphids are feeding on a plant. The image is a close up, and the bugs are a neon green. There is about thirty aphids in the picture.
It is recommended to wash the plant with soapy water or insecticidal soap.

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.

Thrips

Thrips eating a plant. You can see three thirps feeding, and they are each longer bugs with wings on their backs.
These small insects suck the juice from the plant.

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.

Spider Mites

A plant that's been eaten by spider mites. You can see the small black mites crawling all over the plant, and it's starting to have brown and yellow decay on the leaves from their infestation.
It is recommended to treat with insecticidal soap or spray the plants with an industrial pesticide to get rid of spider mites.

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.

Fungus Gnats

Fungus Gnats on yellow sticky trap that's designed to catch bugs before they get to the plant. The fungus gnats are dead before they reach the plant.
These tiny flies are attracted to excess moisture in the soil and feed on plant roots.

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.

Final Thoughts

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.

SHARE THIS POST
Large Leaf Houseplants

Houseplants

21 Different Houseplants With Large Leaves

Looking for a new houseplant, but want to make sure it has large leaves to compliment other plants in your indoor garden? If so, then you've come to the right place! In this article, we take a deeper look at our favorite big-leafed plants that can thrive in just about any indoor space!

ghost plant light

Houseplants

How Much Sunlight Do Ghost Plants Need?

Ghost plants are popular succulents, but many new owners aren't sure how much sunlight they actually need. In this article, gardening expert Emily Horn walks through the direct and indirect sunlight needs for ghost plants, and their ideal location once they are placed in your home.

peperomia hope

Houseplants

How to Plant, Grow and Care For Peperomia Hope

Are you considering a Peperomia Hope as the next addition to your indoor garden? This Peperomia variety has become more popular in recent years, and with good reason! In this article, gardening expert and houseplant enthusiast Madison Moulton walks through how to plant, grow and care for this popular houseplant!

zz plant

Houseplants

How to Plant, Grow and Care For ZZ Plants

Thinking of adding a ZZ plant to your indoor garden? These hardy houseplants have surged in popularity for a number of reasons. In this article, gardening expert and houseplant enthusiast Madison Moulton walks through how to plant, grow and care for ZZ plants!

Propagate African Violets

Houseplants

How to Propagate African Violets in 6 Easy Steps

Propagating African Violets can be an extremely rewarding process for indoor gardeners. But to do it properly, there are certain steps you'll need to follow. In this article, gardening expert and houseplant enthusiast Madison Moulton takes you through each step of propagating African Violets from leaf cuttings.

Red Leafed Houseplant

Houseplants

45 Indoor Plants With Red & Variegated Red Leaves

Looking to add a new houseplant to your indoor garden, but want to make sure it has has a bit of red in the leaves? There are many different houseplants that will fit this criteria, so picking the right one will come down to ease of care, indoor location, and of course, looks! In this article, we look at our favorite houseplants with red leaves or red variegated leaves!