How to Grow and Care for a Christmas Cactus

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Christmas Cactus

Christmas cactus is a popular holiday plant known for its colorful flowers and easy care. Unlike other cacti, it is native to the rainforests of Brazil and is an epiphyte, which means it grows on other plants instead of in soil. It is also called a holiday cactus because it blooms around Christmas in the Northern Hemisphere. 

Quick Christmas Cactus Facts

Table of Contents

Christmas cactus is a beautiful succulent plant that blooms around Christmas time in the Northern Hemisphere. It is native to the rainforests of Brazil, where it grows as an epiphyte on tree branches.

Here are some facts about this festive plant:

  • Christmas cactus belongs to the genus Schlumbergera, which has six species and many hybrids. The most common one is Schlumbergera truncata, also known as Thanksgiving cactus or crab cactus.
  • Christmas cactus has flattened, spineless stems that are divided into segments. The stems can grow up to 3 feet (1 meter) long and hang down like a pendant.
  • Christmas cactus produces flower buds in response to short days and cool nights. It needs at least 14 hours of uninterrupted darkness and temperatures between 50°F and 55°F (10°C and 13°C) for six to eight weeks before blooming.
  • The flowers are tubular, with long stamens and pistils. They come in various colors, such as pink, red, white, yellow, salmon, and fuchsia. Some cultivars have bicolor or multicolor flowers.
  • Christmas cactus can live for 20 to 30 years or even longer with proper care. It prefers bright, indirect light and well-drained soil. It should be watered when the top inch (2.5 cm) of soil feels dry and fertilized every two weeks during the growing season.
  • Not toxic to pets or humans, unlike other holiday plants such as poinsettia and mistletoe. However, it may cause mild digestive upset if ingested in large amounts.
  • Propagation can be done by stem cuttings or by grafting. Stem cuttings should be taken from healthy plants in spring or summer and allowed to dry for a few days before planting. Grafting involves attaching a stem segment of one plant to the rootstock of another.
  • It was first collected and documented by Allan Cunningham, a British botanist who explored Brazil in the early 1800s. He named the plant Epiphyllum russellianum after his patron, the Duke of Bedford.

Christmas cactus is a beautiful plant to have in your home or to give as a gift. It adds color and cheer to any room and can be enjoyed for many years.

Types of Holiday Cactus

Holiday cacti are popular houseplants that produce colorful flowers around certain holidays.

There are three main types of holiday cacti:

Christmas cactus, Thanksgiving cactus, and Easter cactus. They belong to the same family of succulents, but they have different botanical names and bloom times. Christmas cactus (Schlumbergera bridgesii) has smooth, notched stems and blooms in late December.

Thanksgiving cactus (Schlumbergera truncata) has pointed, claw-like stems and blooms in late November. Easter cactus (Rhipsalidopsis gaertneri) has rounded, scalloped stems and blooms in late March or early April. All three types of holiday cacti need bright, indirect light, well-drained soil, and cool temperatures to thrive and flower.

How to Grow a Christmas Cactus

Planting

You need a well-draining potting mix rich in organic matter to grow a Christmas cactus. You can use a commercial cactus mix or make your own by mixing equal parts of peat moss, perlite, and vermiculite. Choose a pot that is slightly larger than the plant’s root ball and has drainage holes at the bottom. Fill the pot with the potting mix and plant the Christmas cactus in the center. Cover the roots with soil and press gently to firm the soil around the plant.

Watering

Christmas cactus needs to be watered regularly, but not too much. Overwatering can cause root rot while underwatering can lead to wilting and dropping flowers. The best way to water a Christmas cactus is to wait until the top inch of soil is dry and then thoroughly water. Allow the excess water to drain out of the pot and discard it. Do not let the plant sit in standing water, which can cause root rot.

Fertilizing

Christmas cactus must be fertilized monthly during the growing season, from spring to fall. You can use a balanced fertilizer high in phosphorus, promoting flowering. Follow the instructions on the label for the correct dosage and frequency. Do not fertilize the plant during the dormant season, late fall to early spring.

Pruning

Christmas cactus can grow up to 3 feet tall and wide, but you can control its size and shape by pruning it. Prune the plant after it has bloomed, usually in late winter or early spring. Use sharp, clean scissors or pruning shears to cut back the stems to the desired length. You can also remove dead, damaged, or diseased stems or leaves.

Propagating

Christmas cactus can be propagated easily by stem cuttings. Take a 3-4 inch cutting from the tip of a stem and remove the lower leaves. Dip the cut end in rooting hormone and plant it in a pot filled with moist potting mix.

Cover the pot with a plastic bag or wrap to create a humid environment, and place it in a bright, indirect light. Keep the soil moist but not wet, and wait for the cutting to root, which usually takes 2-3 weeks. Remove the plastic once the cutting has rooted and treat it like a mature plant.

How to Make a Christmas Cactus Bloom

Inducing Dormancy

Christmas cactus needs a period of dormancy to bloom, triggered by short days and cool temperatures. To induce dormancy, you need to reduce the amount of water, fertilizer, light, and temperature the plant receives. Stop fertilizing the plant in late summer and reduce watering gradually in the fall. Place the plant in a cool, dark room for 12-14 hours daily for 6-8 weeks, starting in late September or early October. The temperature should be between 50-60°F (10-15°C) during this period.

Inducing Flowering

After the dormancy period, you can induce flowering by reversing the conditions. Move the plant to a bright, indirect light and resume watering and fertilizing. Increase the temperature to 65-75°F (18-24°C) and provide 12-14 hours of light a day. The plant should start to produce flower buds in 4-6 weeks and bloom in time for Christmas.

How to Identify and Treat Common Problems

Pests

Christmas cactus can be affected by mealybugs, spider mites, and scale insects. These pests can be removed by wiping the leaves with a damp cloth or spraying the plant with insecticidal soap. Repeat the treatment every week until the pests are gone.

Diseases

Christmas cactus can be susceptible to root rot, stem rot, and leaf spots. These diseases are caused by overwatering, poor drainage, and high humidity. To prevent these problems, ensure the soil is well-draining, the pot has drainage holes, and the plant is not exposed to cold drafts or direct sunlight.

Issues

Christmas cactus can also experience issues such as wilting, dropping of flowers, and yellowing of leaves.

Yellowing of Leaves

Yellowing of leaves can be caused by overwatering, underwatering, or exposure to direct sunlight. To prevent this problem, make sure the soil is moist but not wet, the pot has drainage holes, and the plant is not exposed to direct sunlight.

Wilting

Wilting can be caused by underwatering, overwatering, or exposure to cold drafts1. To prevent this problem, ensure the soil is moist but not wet, the pot has drainage holes, and the plant is not exposed to cold drafts.

Dropping of Flowers

Dropping of flowers can be caused by sudden changes in temperature, light, or humidity. To prevent this problem, ensure the plant is not exposed to cold drafts, hot air vents, or direct sunlight. Keep the plant in a stable environment with consistent temperature, light, and humidity.

FAQ

What should I do with a Christmas Cactus after it blooms?

After your Christmas Cactus has bloomed, it’s essential to allow it to enter a period of rest. Reduce watering slightly and keep the plant in a cooler, but not cold, location.

Where should I place a Christmas Cactus in my house?

Place your Christmas Cactus in a location with bright, indirect light and some humidity, such as near a window with sheer curtains.

Does a Christmas Cactus need sun?

Christmas Cacti need bright, but not direct, sunlight. Too much direct sun can harm the leaves and flowers.

How long will Christmas Cactus live?

With proper care, a Christmas Cactus can live for 20 to 30 years, sometimes even longer.

Does a Christmas Cactus like to be wet or dry?

It prefers to be more on the dry side. Water only when the top inch of the soil feels dry to the touch.

How do you take care of an indoor Christmas Cactus?

Ensure bright indirect light, moderate watering, and avoid drafts or heat sources for indoor care. Fertilize during the growing season.

Can you grow a Christmas Cactus indoors?

Yes, Christmas Cacti are well-suited for indoor growth as long as they receive enough light and are not overwatered.

Should I deadhead my Christmas Cactus?

Yes, deadheading or removing spent flowers can encourage more blooms and keep the plant healthy.

Can Christmas Cactus go outside?

Yes, but it should be gradually acclimated to outdoor conditions and brought back inside before temperatures drop too low.

Can Christmas Cactus grow in water?

Christmas Cactus can be propagated in water, but it’s not ideal for long-term growth.

Can Christmas Cactus go outside in summer?

Yes, they can benefit from being outside in summer, but they need to be gradually acclimated and placed in indirect light.

Can Christmas Cactus take full sun?

No, full sun can damage the plant. They prefer bright but indirect sunlight.

Can Christmas Cactus live outside?

They can live outside in appropriate climates but are generally better suited as indoor plants.

Can Christmas Cactus grow outside?

In mild climates with no frost, they can grow outside. Otherwise, they are better as indoor plants.

Can Christmas Cactus be outside?

Yes, in suitable weather, but they must be brought inside when temperatures drop.

Can Christmas Cactus be rooted in water?

Yes, stem cuttings can be rooted in water, then transplanted to soil.

Can Christmas Cactus be in direct sunlight?

Direct sunlight should be avoided as it can burn the leaves.

Can Christmas Cactus grow in low light?

They can survive in low light, but flowering is best in bright, indirect light.

Should Christmas Cactus be inside or outside?

Christmas Cactus is typically an indoor plant but can be put outside in mild weather.

Should Christmas Cactus be pruned?

Yes, occasional pruning can encourage fuller growth and more flowers.

Should Christmas cacti be fertilized?

Fertilize during the growing season, usually spring and summer, for best results.

Should Christmas Cactus be root bound?

Being slightly root-bound is okay, but they should be repotted if growth is stunted.

Should Christmas Cactus be misted?

Misting can help increase humidity, which is beneficial for the plant.

Should Christmas Cactus be repotted?

Repot every few years or when the plant becomes too large for its pot.

Should Christmas Cactus be cut back?

Cutting back can be done to encourage branching, but it’s not strictly necessary.

Should Christmas Cactus be trimmed?

Trimming or pruning can promote a fuller, healthier plant.

Should Christmas Cactus be outside in summer?

They can be placed outside in summer, but gradually acclimate them to the outdoor environment.

Should Christmas Cactus be in direct sunlight?

No, they should be in bright, indirect sunlight.

Does Christmas Cactus need sun?

It needs bright, indirect sun for optimal growth and flowering.

Does Christmas Cactus like sugar water?

There’s no need to use sugar water; regular watering with plain water is best.

Does Christmas Cactus like sun?

It likes bright but indirect sunlight.

Does Christmas Cactus like coffee grounds?

While some gardeners use coffee grounds for acidity, it’s unnecessary for Christmas Cactus care.

Does Christmas Cactus like to be rootbound?

It can tolerate being slightly root-bound but should be repotted if it becomes too cramped.

Does Christmas Cactus need direct sunlight?

No, direct sunlight can be harmful. Bright, indirect light is ideal.

Does Christmas Cactus need a lot of light?

It needs a moderate amount of light, preferably indirect.

Does Christmas Cactus like direct sunlight?

No, it prefers indirect sunlight to prevent leaf burn.

Conclusion

The Christmas Cactus, scientifically known as Schlumbergera, is a unique plant that brings vibrant color and life to homes, particularly during the holiday season. This festive plant, part of the Dotdash Meredith publishing family, is renowned for its stunning flower blooms, typically in shades of pink, which add a delightful touch to any home improvement or garden setting.

To ensure your Christmas Cactus thrives, proper cactus care is essential. This includes using potting soil explicitly mixed for cacti ensuring the soil provides adequate drainage to prevent root rot. The plant’s stem segments are delicate and require indirect light and a consistent watering schedule, especially when flower buds begin to form.

Christmas cacti, which include varieties like the Thanksgiving Cactus (Schlumbergera truncata) and the Easter Cactus, differ from the typical cactus species. These holiday cacti prefer a growing medium that retains moisture yet drains well. The key to making a Christmas Cactus bloom is mimicking its natural habitat.

During the summer, the plant benefits from being outdoors in indirect light. As winter approaches, shorter daylight hours and cooler temperatures encourage the buds to form, leading to a spectacular display of flowers, usually six weeks later.

The common name, Christmas Cactus, often confuses its holiday counterparts, the Thanksgiving and Easter cacti. Despite their names, all these plants belong to the same genus, Schlumbergera, and share similar care requirements.

It’s crucial to have pots with drainage holes to prevent water from stagnating at the roots. Additionally, while caring for these plants, remember to keep them away from direct light sources, which can scorch their leaves and hinder blooming.

In conclusion, the Christmas Cactus is not only a symbol of the holiday season but also a testament to the diversity and adaptability of plants. With proper care, including the right soil, water, and light conditions, these cacti can provide a dazzling display of winter flowers year after year, enhancing the beauty of any home or garden.

Remember to provide the plant with the right amount of water, fertilizer, light, and temperature and to watch out for common problems such as pests, diseases, and issues. With a little effort and patience, you can enjoy the beauty of a Christmas cactus for many years.