How to Grow a Holiday Cactus

Christmas cactus

The Spruce / Kara Riley 

As it turns out, fir trees aren't the only plants beloved around the holiday season. Enter: the holiday cactus. While it may seem like an unusual winter holiday plant, the holiday cactus becomes flush with bold blooms, making it a welcome sight in the middle of winter.

There are many legends surrounding the holiday cactus—one in particular comes out of Brazil, where the plant is native. As the story goes, a poor little boy out in the humid jungles prayed to the heavens for a sign of Christmas. Days went by with his prayers left unanswered, until one day he awoke to find himself surrounded by beautiful bursts of flowers on the tips of the nearby cacti branches. From that point on, the cactus symbolized the idea of answered prayers, making it the perfect holiday plant to give to others.

Tropical in origin, the holiday cactus grows indoors as a houseplant until the summer when it can be planted outdoors. Given some minimal care, your cactus will bloom on its own at the beginning of winter.

Botanical Name Schlumbergera buckleyi
Common Name  Holiday cactus, crab cactus
Plant Type  Cactus
Mature Size  6–12 in. tall, 12–24 in. wide
Sun Exposure  Partial sun
Soil Type  Moist but well-drained
Soil pH  Neutral to acidic
Bloom Time  Winter
Flower Color  Pink, red, purple, orange
Hardiness Zones  10–12 (USDA)
Native Area  South America
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Watch Now: How to Grow a Christmas Cactus

Holiday Cactus Care

Unlike the desert-loving cacti many of us are used to, the holiday cactus is a native of tropical rainforests and needs regular water to remain healthy. The flattened leaves are actually stemmed segments that hang and drape from containers and baskets. Flowers will form at the ends of these stems, so the more stems your plant has, the more flowers it will boast. Traditionally the cactus blooms red, but you can now find holiday cacti in a myriad of flower colors, including red, pink, purple, and orange

To encourage more stems, grow your holiday cactus as a hanging plant or place it somewhere where it has room to drape. Don’t worry about rubbing up against it. Holiday cactus plants do not have thorns.

closeup of Christmas cactus blooms
The Spruce / Kara Riley 
Christmas cactus pre-bloom
The Spruce / Kara Riley  

Light

The holiday cactus prefers partial shade or a diffused light, although they are very adaptable at adjusting to growing conditions. If you do expose them to full sunlight, make it during the winter months—plentiful sunlight in the spring and summer can make the plant pale and yellow.

Soil

Soil is not much a driving factor for the holiday cactus—a general purpose potting mix will work just fine, but it's pretty adaptable to most soil conditions. It does prefer a pH level between 5.5 and 6.2 to achieve optimal growth.

Water

Though the holiday cactus is, in fact, a cactus, its tropical origins mean it craves more water than most. Water the plant thoroughly, allowing the excess water to run out through the drainage hole. Allow the soil to dry almost completely between waterings—you will know if the soil is too dry when the leaves start to pucker and shrivel.

Temperature and Humidity

The holiday cactus needs ample humidity, especially when grown in the dry conditions of heated homes (which is often the case in winter). Either mist the plant or place a tray of pebbles sitting in the water beneath the plant to help boost its humidity levels.

Temperature-wise, the holiday cactus is a bit picky. During its peak growth months (April to September), it prefers balmy temperatures between 70 and 80 degrees Fahrenheit. However, once the buds are set, it requires low nighttime temperatures (between 55 and 65 degrees Fahrenheit) and at least 13 hours of darkness to actually flower. Keep it away from frequently opened doors and drafty windows; the cactus doesn't like sudden drafts and will drop their buds or flowers if exposed to one.

Fertilizer

Feed your holiday cactus monthly with a diluted water-soluble fertilizer during the spring and summer months. Once you've noticed flower buds have formed, begin withholding fertilizer until it blooms (at which point you can resume monthly feedings).

Prep Your Holiday Cactus to Bloom

To have your holiday cactus bloom exactly at holiday time, you will probably need to force it by first sending it into dormancy and then coaxing it out. Follow these steps, starting in mid-fall.

  1. In mid-October, reduce your watering. Only water when the soil feels dry about an inch below the surface. Do not fertilize.
  2. Keep your holiday cactus cool. Ideally, you want it between 50 and 55 degrees Fahrenheit.
  3. Begin to limit the amount of light the plant receives. The plant can remain in indirect light during the day, but it will need at least 12 to 14 hours of total darkness at night in order for flower buds to develop. (If the room is warmer than the ideal 50 to 55 Fahrenheit, give your plant an extra couple of hours of darkness each day.) The easiest way to do this is to place the holiday cactus in a room or closet with a door that does not get opened at night. If light gets under the door, you will need to take the additional step of covering the plant with a dark cloth or bag. Continue this treatment for about six to eight weeks. At that point, you should see flower buds developing on the stems.
  4. Once you see flower buds beginning to form, move your holiday cactus out of the darkness and near a bright window. Make sure it is not near any drafts, or the cold will cause it to drop its buds.

Flowers should start opening within a couple of weeks. Each flower will remain open for at least six days, and the plant should continue to bloom for four to six weeks.

Article Sources
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  1. Thanksgiving and Christmas Cacti. Clemson University Cooperative Extension.

  2. Is it a Thanksgiving, Christmas or Easter Cactus?. Iowa State University Extension and Outreach