So, you’re the new owner of a beautiful Christmas cactus… and you’d like to keep it that way! Here’s everything you need to know about caring for a Christmas cactus, watering frequency, feeding, repotting, as well as how to propagate new plants from cuttings.
How to Keep a Christmas Cactus Alive & Make it Thrive
The beautiful Christmas cactus, scientifically known as Schlumbergera, is relatively easy to grow and can be placed indoors or outside warm climates. They prefer high humidity but avoid overwatering. Blooms are delicate and come in a rainbow of lovely shades ranging from purple to pink, yellow, orange, red, and white.
The Christmas cactus is a tropical succulent preferring cooler weather and indirect lighting. Avoid direct sunlight. The optimum temperature is between 60 to 80 degrees. Water sparingly when the first few inches of soil is dry to the touch. They prefer a light daily misting.
Unlike its desert cousins, the Christmas cactus is tropical. Easy to grow, hardy, and glorious to behold, here’s everything you need to know to keep them alive and to thrive.
Are you sure it’s a Christmas Cactus?
The three main types are the Christmas cactus, Thanksgiving cactus, and the Easter Cactus. The shape of the leaves will tell you which one you have.
The Christmas cactus has round tips on their stem sections, and the flowers have pink pollen and hang down.
Thanksgiving cactus segments have pointed tips, flowers that grow horizontally, and yellow pollen.
Easter cactus may look similar, but they are an entirely different group. Sporting scalloped edges on the leaves, the flowers are star-shaped, and they bloom in spring. Both Christmas and Thanksgiving cactus bloom in December-January.
Christmas cactus prefer sandy soil, low light, and moderate temperatures. Originating in the rainforests of Brazil, they are succulent and do well in areas of high humidity.
Christmas cactus are perennials and can live 20 or thirty years with proper care. Feed after blooming in January and continue through fall.
They do best between 60 to 80 degrees and should be kept indoors when outside temperatures drop to fifty degrees or below. Similarly, they will start to die if left out in over 90-degree weather.
The most common of the flowering cactus is actually the Thanksgiving cactus, also known as the Zygocactus. The Christmas cactus (a hybrid) is rarely cultivated commercially. No matter what kind you have, they are a beautiful addition to your holiday decorations and will add a pretty pop of color.
What & How Often to Feed your Christmas Cactus
Apply a decent water-soluble fertilizer for blooming plants monthly after the cactus has finished blooming, usually in early spring. It is readily available online, as well as in most garden centers or home improvement stores, and fertilizer should be given monthly during regular watering, from late winter through fall.
Don’t make the mistake of over-watering. Outdoors, plants will need to be watered several times a week, especially during the summer months. Indoors, left surface soil dry out to a few inches deep before watering, usually about once a week.
Since they are tropical plants, they thrive with daily misting and high humidity.
Encouraging Your Christmas Cactus to Bloom
Christmas cactus will bloom from late December through January with just a little effort.
- Reduce light to twelve hours per day in September or October. You can place it in a dark room or a closet or cover it with a large bag or box for six to eight weeks.
- Lower the temperature to about 55 degrees, but not below 50 degrees.
- Water the plant less frequently for six to eight weeks until you see buds forming.
- Once your cactus have buds, return to the usual watering and lighting schedule
- You may sometimes get a second blooming in mid-February.
- After the plant has bloomed, pinch the spent blossoms to encourage new growth and branching. You can prune in early summer to ensure plenty of flowers and prevent the “leggy” look. At this point in the plant’s cycle, this is a great time to propagate some new plants to keep or share.
How to Propagate Christmas Cactus Cuttings with 100% Success
The best time to propagate is when the plant is healthy, usually right after blooming.
Using sharp scissors or shears, cut a piece of stem with up to four segments and leave it in a cool, dry place for a few days. Cut right between the sections. You should be able to trim four or five pieces or more from a lovely healthy plant.
Plant about an inch deep in potting soil in a small pot. Water lightly until roots develop.
To easily root Christmas cactus in water, place up to four segments in a glass of water. Roots will grow in three or four weeks. When the new roots reach an inch in length, it is ready to be planted. Gently plant them in a small pot with good potting soil. Don’t pack it down too much and water sparingly.
You can also dust lightly with powdered rooting hormone. Just dip the cutting and shake off any excess right before putting it in soil. The boost of nutrients from the rooting hormone will really give them a good head start. This is preferred when planting the “pups”, not when rooting them in water.
You can make your own rooting hormone easily. Just add one tablespoon of honey to two cups of water. Bring to a boil and mix thoroughly. Allow to cool to room temperature and simply dip your segments, the pups, and continue with planting. It works in much the same way as a powdered hormone.
A broken piece of cactus also propagates well and is a great way to save an otherwise discarded piece. Cut off the broken end, let dry for a few days, then plant or place it in a glass of water until roots form.
Troubleshooting Your Christmas Cactus
If your Christmas cactus suffers from bud-drop, the culprit is usually high temperatures. Optimal temperatures are sixty to eighty degrees. Anything over that can cause buds to fall off before they bloom. Over 90 degrees can be deadly. Too much direct sunlight will also cause the buds to drop off too soon.
The cause of leaf drop is typically due to overwatering. Leaves may also appear limp if the plant is getting too much water. Be sure to have a drainage hole in the pot and only water when the top of the soil feels dry to the touch. When you do water, let it flow through to the drainage hole, then pour off the excess.
Plant Health by Color
If your Christmas Cactus leaves are changing colors, it is alerting you to problems with your plant’s health.
Red leaves, much like red skin in the summertime, are actually sunburned. Keep out of the direct sun, especially if your windows face the south. Move to a north-facing window. Reddish purple-tinged leaves can be a sign of magnesium deficiency, often occurring during the winter months when feeding is less common.
Purple or brown leaves signifies damage to the roots and can be caused by too-frequent repotting. Christmas cactus prefer their roots to be slightly crowded, so don’t transplant too often. Brown leaves can also be a sign of rotting roots from over-watering.
Yellow stem segments can be caused by overcrowding, too much sun, or too much water.
White Christmas cactus leaves are indicative of root rot, caused by overwatering (and or poor soil drainage). The leaves appear yellow at first and eventually turn white.
Unfortunately, a black or slimy spot is the sign of a disease, either fungal or bacterial. When this happens, it is not usually curable, and it’s best to discard the entire plant to prevent the spread of the disease.
Can you grow your Christmas cactus outside?
Yes, as long as it isn’t too hot (or too cold!) Many areas of the United States, especially the southern and midwest states, are great for Christmas cactus. You can still place them outside in a pot in northern areas of the country during mild weather in spring or fall.
A shady spot on your porch is the right place in southern states. When temperatures dip, you should cover them or bring them inside. The Christmas cactus can’t tolerate temperatures below freezing and shouldn’t be left outside in the winter in colder areas.
Do Christmas cactus cause allergies?
Since the pollen from a Christmas cactus bloom does not float around, they aren’t likely to cause allergic reactions. You may experience some discomfort while repotting them due to the spiny leaves that can cause itching and a rash. Wear gardening gloves when handling Christmas cactus to protect your skin.
Is Christmas cactus toxic to pets?
While some holiday plants are extremely dangerous for dogs and cats, both can normally be exposed to the Christmas cactus without the worry of poisoning. The spiny leaves can irritate cats, who may like to rub up against them. The leaves are tough and fibrous and could possibly cause stomach irritation if ingested. If you have curious cats, you should try to put your cactus out of their reach.
Is Christmas cactus challenging to grow?
With a little research and care, most anyone can raise a thriving Christmas cactus. They thrive on “benign neglect,” in which you don’t overwhelm them with too much attention. This also makes them the perfect addition to your holiday decor since it is often a busy time of year. Keep watering to a minimum, the light should be indirect, and temperatures shouldn’t vary too widely. The elegant, graceful flowers are the reward for the time and effort you put into them.
When should you repot or transplant a Christmas Cactus?
Christmas cactus prefer their roots to be slightly crowded, but you should repot every two or three years. Spring is a good time when they are beginning to grow again after blooming. Handle with care to protect the roots and reduce the stress of repotting. Use a new pot that is only a bit bigger than the existing container. Add soil loosely, and be careful not to pack it too much.
Christmas cactus does not grow in soil in their native habitat. Instead, in the wild, they thrive on trees or in sandy, rocky areas on the mountainous coast of Brazil and the rainforest.
The average lifespan of a Christmas cactus is between twenty and thirty years, but some have been known to live for a centennial!
The oldest known Christmas cactus was 111 years old and had been passed down to family members for generations.
Christmas cacti release oxygen at night, rather than during the day like most houseplants. Having one in your bedroom can give you a better night’s sleep by improving the air quality in your home.
On occasion, you can add a cup of coffee to the soil of your Christmas cactus to promote growth. Just add a cup of coffee or tea, at room temperature, once a week. It should be plain, without sugar or cream. It’s also an excellent way to use up leftover coffee or tea.