The Christmas cactus joins Norfolk Island pine trees and poinsettias as plants beloved during the winter season. While it may seem like an unusual holiday plant, the Christmas cactus, also called holiday cactus, is flush with bold blooms, making it a welcome sight in the middle of winter. The fleshy segmented stems of the plant are flattened leaves and slightly serrated on each side. In late fall or early winter, tubular flowers bloom on the ends of each stem.
Originating in the Brazilian rainforest, all varieties of a Christmas cactus can be started any time of the year indoors as a houseplant until the summer when you can replant or move it outdoors. Given the right care, your cactus should grow fast and bloom at the beginning of each winter.
|Common Name||Christmas cactus, holiday cactus, crab cactus|
|Botanical Name||Schlumbergera x buckleyi|
|Plant Type||Succulent, cactus, perennial|
|Mature Size||6–12 in. tall, 12–24 in. wide|
|Soil Type||Moist, well-drained, loamy|
|Soil pH||Neutral, acidic|
|Bloom Time||Fall, winter|
|Flower Color||Pink, red, white, purple, orange|
|Hardiness Zones||10–12 (USDA)|
|Native Area||South America|
Watch Now: How to Grow a Christmas Cactus
Christmas Cactus Care
Taking care of a Christmas cactus is a little trickier than most other desert-loving cacti that are drought resistant. The Christmas cactus is a tropical rainforest native and needs regular water to remain healthy. The flattened leaves are stemmed segments that hang and drape from containers and hanging baskets. Flowers form at the ends of the stems—so the more stems your plant has, the more flowers it will have. Traditionally, the cactus blooms red, but it can produce flowers that are pink, white, magenta, or purple, or the less common colors of salmon, peach, and orange.
To encourage more stems, grow your Christmas cactus as a hanging plant or place it where it has room to drape. You won't need to worry about touching thorny spikes as you do with other types of cacti.
Planting Christmas Cactus
The best pots for cactus plants are terra cotta or clay pots. These pots are porous and wick away water from plants that can be harmed by overwatering. The pot should have many drainage holes or one large one at the bottom.
When repotting, choose a container that is only 1 to 2 inches bigger in diameter than the current one. A pot larger than that can retain too much moisture or invite insects and plant diseases.
A Christmas cactus likes sun or shade, but you have to take care not to give it too much of either one. Holiday cacti prefer partial shade or diffused light, although they are adaptable to other conditions. If you expose them to full sunlight, ensure it's during the winter months; too much sunlight in the spring and summer can cause the plant to become pale and yellow.
Soil is not an essential factor for the Christmas cactus; it's adaptable to most soil conditions and grows naturally as an epiphyte in its native region. Yours can thrive in loamy, sandy, perlite, cactus mix, or general-purpose potting soil. To achieve optimal growth, it prefers a pH level between 5.5 and 6.2; peat moss is a helpful additive for a more acidic environment.
Though it is a cactus, its tropical origins make this plant crave more water than most. Water the plant thoroughly, allowing excess water to run out through the drainage holes. Let the soil dry almost completely between waterings. You will know if the soil is too dry when the leaves start to pucker and shrivel.
During a hot, sunny summer, water the plant two to three times a week. If the plant is located in a sunny window during the winter, it might need water once a week. To check the moisture level, place your finger 2 inches into the soil; if it's dry to the touch, water thoroughly. If you keep the plant in a cooler location away from a window during the winter season, it might only need water once every two to three weeks.
Temperature and Humidity
The Christmas cactus needs ample humidity, especially when grown in the dry conditions of heated homes during the winter. Either mist the plant or place a pebble tray filled with water beneath the pot to boost its humidity levels.
Temperature-wise, the Christmas cactus is a bit picky. During its peak growth months (April to September), it prefers balmy temperatures between 70 and 80 degrees Fahrenheit. Once the buds are set, it requires low nighttime temperatures (between 55 and 65 degrees Fahrenheit) and at least 13 hours of darkness to form buds that will flower. Keep it away from heating vents, frequently-opened doors, and drafty windows; this plant does not like to be exposed to sudden drafts or temperature changes and it will drop its buds or flowers if it's unhappy.
Feed your Christmas cactus monthly with a half-strength, diluted water-soluble balanced fertilizer during the early spring and summer months. Once you've noticed the formation of flower buds—usually late summer or early fall—stop feeding. After the plant blooms, you can resume monthly feedings.
Types of Christmas Cactus
Schlumbergera x buckleyi is a hybrid plant often called by other names such as Thanksgiving, Christmas, or Easter cactus. They look alike but bloom at different times and have slight differences in the shape of their leaves. Because of their subtle differences, they are often mislabeled in garden centers.
- Thanksgiving cactus (Schlumbergera truncata): This plant blooms close to the end of November with showy flower colors that are either red, pink, peach, purple, orange, or white. It has very pointed and claw-shaped projections on the edges of its leaves.
- Christmas cactus (Schlumbergera russelliana): Often bred with S. truncata to form Schlumbergera x buckleyi, this species blooms close to the end of December with magenta and white flowers. It has flattened leaf segments that are rounded with a few notches around the edges.
- Easter cactus (Rhipsalidopsis gaetneri): This variety starts to reveal star-shaped flower buds in February and flowers from March through May. It has tiny bristles on the edges of its rounded leaf segments.
Prune a Christmas cactus right after it blooms, when it enters a new growth period extending its growth segments. Pruning will force the plant to branch out, and it will grow more of its distinctive stems. You can also prune safely from after bloom to late spring without harming the plant.
To prune a Christmas cactus, give the stems a twist between one of the segments. You can also use a sharp, sterilized knife or scissors to remove segments. You can remove up to a third of the plant per year or, more conservatively, trim off one to two segments from the end of each stem.
Propagating Christmas Cactus
The best time to propagate a Christmas cactus is one to two months after it's finished blooming. Avoid propagating it in the fall while it sets its buds and as it's actively flowering. Taking cuttings of Christmas cactus, large or small, will help the original plant grow fuller and bushier, resulting in more blooms in the future. Christmas cactus is best propagated from stem cuttings.
To begin, prepare a 4- or 6-inch pot and fill it with a growing medium like a cactus mix, all-purpose potting soil, or a sandy/peat mix. Optionally, you can root your segment in a clear jar of filtered water before planting it.
- Use your clean hands or a sterile knife or scissors to cut sections of stems with three to five stem segments on each.
- Place the stem segment in a cool, dry place for two to four days until the cut end callouses (dries out) to protect the end from rotting.
- Push the cuttings about an inch deep in the lightly moistened soil. Three stems fit nicely into a 4-inch pot; five stems in a 6-inch pot. It should take two to three weeks for roots to form.
- Water the plant well. To create a humid environment and encourage rooting, cover the plants and container with a clear plastic bag secured with a rubber band. Remove the plastic bag once rooting has started.
- Let the soil dry out between waterings.
- Optionally, you can root the stems in water before planting them in the soil. Set the cut end in 1 to 2 inches of filtered water, then place the jar in a window with indirect light. After several weeks, the stems should have roots at least 1 or 2 inches long and are ready to plant in potting soil (see step 3).
- You want good rooting to occur before you repot the plant; wait at least eight to ten weeks before repotting to a permanent home. The best evidence of good rooting is new leaf or stem growth.
How to Grow Christmas Cactus From Seed
You can harvest cactus seeds from the pods (fruits) of the plant. If the pods are still green, wait until they turn red. The pod transformation usually happens in the fall. Extract the brownish-black seeds and wash the pulp away.
- Plant the seeds in moist sphagnum peat moss and vermiculite, loamy compost, or cactus mix. Press the seed into the soil without covering it or sprinkle a thin layer of vermiculite on top.
- Cover the pot with clear plastic wrap or enclose it in a clear plastic bag to increase humidity in the growing environment.
- Place the plant on a bright, but indirectly lit, window sill.
- Do not allow the growing medium to dry out. You can spray the soil surface with water every day, or you can safely water the plant from the bottom by placing the pot in a tray of water. The water should wick upwards through the drainage holes. Once the soil surface is moist, remove the plant from the water tray.
- Within two to three weeks, seedlings should emerge. Remove the plastic once you notice seedling growth.
- Transplant the seedlings into individual pots when they are large enough to handle.
Repotting Christmas Cactus
Christmas cactus likes to be rootbound and does not have to be repotted often—every three to four years is sufficient, or when the plant starts looking ragged or you see a lot of roots growing out of the drainage holes. Frequent repotting can damage the plant and can cause it to stop blooming for a while.
Unlike other plants that are best repotted when they display new growth in spring, for Christmas cactus, wait until blooming ends and the flowers have wilted in late winter or early spring. Never repot the plant while it is actively blooming.
Holiday cacti are not cold-hardy and do not tolerate frost. These tropical plants can remain outside in USDA hardiness zones 10 to 12 (certain parts of California, Florida, Hawaii, and Puerto Rico). They can handle nighttime lows in the 60s, but anything approaching freezing can kill the plant. Bring the plant indoors before the first frost and maintain drier soil. The colder temperatures should spur bud production. You should begin to see buds forming by October.
Common Pests & Plant Diseases
The most common pests that infect holiday cacti are fungus gnats, flower thrips, aphids, spider mites, and mealybugs. Do not overwater your plant; soggy soil is what most often attracts these pests. Insecticidal soap and horticultural oil are usually effective in controlling an outbreak. The tiny pests can also be removed by blotting them with an alcohol-soaked cotton ball. A Christmas cactus might not survive a heavy infestation and might need to be discarded, especially if there are other plants nearby.
Fungal diseases are common when plants are overwatered. Avoid overwatering to prevent fungal infections. Fusarium and Phytophthora are two common Christmas cactus fungi that can cause stem rot. Fusarium stem rot causes brown spots to form on the stem at the soil line. Phytophthora stem rot causes the stem to appear wet or water-soaked at the soil line. Phytophthora is deadly. A Christmas cactus might rebound from the fusarium if caught early enough, but it's often hard to save. If the plant has overly wet soil, allow it to dry out, then apply a fungicide according to the package instructions.
How to Get Christmas Cactus to Bloom
Under the best conditions, plants bloom about 18 months after sowing from seed. Each flower will remain open for at least six days, and the plant should continue to bloom for four to six weeks. The Christmas cactus colors are showy but the flowers are scentless. The best way to ensure that your Christmas cactus remains in bloom throughout the winter is by removing the faded flowers or deadheading.
For your Christmas cactus to bloom during the holiday season, you might need to force it into dormancy, then coax it out. Here's how:
- In mid-October, reduce watering (probably once every week or two). Only water when the soil feels dry about an inch below the surface. Stop fertilizing.
- Keep your Christmas cactus cool between 50 to 55 degrees Fahrenheit and make sure to limit the amount of light it gets for about six to eight weeks.
- During the day, the plant can receive indirect light, but it needs 12 to 14 hours of total darkness at night. If the room is warmer than 55 degrees Fahrenheit, give your plant an extra couple of hours of darkness each day. If light can reach the plant anytime during its 12 hours of "night," cover the plant with a dark cloth.
- Once flower buds form, move the plant to a bright, draft-free window. Flowers should start opening within a couple of weeks.
Common Problems With a Christmas Cactus
Holiday cacti are long-lived plants that are sensitive to temperature and humidity. They are hardy when kept above freezing temperatures; however, they will require ideal temperatures and conditions for lush flowering during the holidays.
Stunted Appearance or Growth Distortion
If you notice that your Christmas cactus has stunted or distorted growth, inspect it closely for a mealybug infestation. Mealybugs look like tiny white cotton dots about 1/8 to 1/4 inches long. They move slowly and often appear first low on the leaf surface in the dark, warm, moist areas near the center stem of the cactus. The insects feed on plant sap and leave a sticky honeydew substance behind, which causes mold to form on the plant.
Yellowed, Spotted, or Wilting Leaves or Stems
If your plant has yellowing leaves or stems, leaf spotting, or plant wilting, inspect them closely for thrips. Thrips are an insect that looks like thin black slivers or tiny lobster-like insects. The leaf and stem damage is not caused directly by thrips but by a virus they commonly transmit, impatiens necrotic spot virus. Treat the thrip infestation with insecticidal soap or horticultural oil. The plant might rebound if you also remove it from its old container and into a sterilized container with fresh potting mix. Wilting can also be caused by too little light, insufficient water, or if the plant is rootbound. Correct those conditions and monitor closely for improvements.
Leaves Turning Red or Pink
If the leaves of your Christmas cactus turn red or pink, it might either be receiving too much sun or too little water. If your plant is located in a window with direct sun, move it back to indirect light. If the soil is dried up to 1 inch deep, water it more frequently. The rule of thumb is to water a Christmas cactus when the top of the soil feels dry.
What is the lifespan of a Christmas cactus?
This beautiful blooming cactus can last for 20 to 30 years if it is well cared for. Note that just because it's not blooming doesn't mean it's dead and needs to be disposed of!
Where should I place a Christmas cactus in my house?
Place a holiday cactus within 3 feet of a large south-, east-, or west-facing window, and in an area that has stable temperature conditions.
What should I do with a Christmas cactus after it blooms?
Don't toss your plant after the Christmas cactus blooms because it may survive for decades, blooming year after year.