How to Grow and Care for Holiday Cactus

Christmas cactus

The Spruce / Kara Riley 

The holiday cactus joins fir trees and poinsettias as plants beloved during the winter season. While it may seem like an unusual holiday plant, this type of cactus is flush with bold blooms, making it a welcome sight in the middle of winter. The Schlumbergera x buckleyi is a hybrid plant often called the Thanksgiving or Christmas cactus. Although they're separate species, both types bloom during the late fall or early winter season and grow moderately fast, able to reach two feet tall in two years.

Tropical in origin, all varieties of holiday cactus can be started any time of the year indoors as a houseplant until the summer when you can replant it outdoors. Given easy care steps, your cactus will bloom on its own at the beginning of winter.

Common Name Holiday cactus, crab cactus
Botanical Name  Schlumbergera x buckleyi
Family Cactaceae
Plant Type  Succulent, cactus, epiphyte
Mature Size  6–12 in. tall, 12–24 in. wide
Sun Exposure  Partial
Soil Type  Moist, well-drained, loamy
Soil pH  Neutral to acidic (5.0 to 7.0)
Bloom Time  Late fall, early winter
Flower Color  Pink, red, white, purple, orange
Hardiness Zones  10–12 (USA)
Native Area  South America
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Watch Now: How to Grow a Christmas Cactus

Holiday Cactus Care

Unlike desert-loving cacti that are drought resistant, the holiday 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 baskets. Flowers form at the ends of these stems—so the more stems your plant has, the more flowers it will have. Traditionally, the cactus blooms red, but holiday cacti blooms can also include pink, purple, and orange.

To encourage more stems, grow your holiday cactus as a hanging plant or place it where it has room to drape. You won't need to worry about touching thorny spikes like other cacti.

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

Light

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 make the plant pale and yellow.

Soil

Soil is not an essential factor for the holiday 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 a 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.

Water

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 may need water once a week. To check the soil, place your finger two 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 may only need water once every two to three weeks.

Temperature and Humidity

The holiday cactus needs ample humidity, especially when grown in the dry conditions of heated homes during the winter. Either mist the plant or place a tray of pebbles sitting in water beneath the pot to 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. Once the buds are set, it requires low nighttime temperatures (between 55 and 65 degrees Fahrenheit) and at least 13 hours of darkness to flower. Keep it away from frequently opened doors and drafty windows; the cactus doesn't like sudden drafts, and it will drop its buds or flowers if exposed to drafts.

Fertilizer

Feed your holiday 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 Holiday Cactus

In addition to Schlumbergera x buckleyi, three other cacti are called holiday cacti. They all look alike, and they're often mislabeled. Here are the common varieties:

  • Thanksgiving cactus (Schlumbergera truncate): Showy flowers bloom in late fall, usually around Thanksgiving; it has crab claw-like appendages on its flat stems with pointy, jagged stem edges.
  • Christmas cactus (Schlumbergera russelliana): Often bred with S. truncate to form Schlumbergera x buckleyi, this species flowers around the end of the year near the Christmas holiday; blooms are reddish or pink, and it has smooth, rounded edges on stem segments.
  • Easter cactus (Rhipsalidopsis gaetneri): Blooming in early spring, this variety starts to reveal star-shaped flower buds in February and flowers from March through May; it has bristles on the edges of its leaf segments.

Pruning

Prune a holiday 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 holiday cactus, give the stems a twist between one of the segments. You can also use a sharp knife or scissors to remove segments. You can remove up to one-third of the plant per year or, more conservatively, trim the end one to two segments from each of the stems.

Propagating Holiday Cactus

The best time to propagate a holiday cactus is one to two months after it's finished blooming. Avoid propagating it in fall while it sets its buds and as it's actively flowering. Taking cuttings of holiday cactus, large or small, will help the original plant grow fuller and bushier, resulting in more blooms in the future. Holiday cactus is best propagated from stem cuttings. Here's how:

  1. Twist off stem segments at the end of each segment with your hands, or use a sterile knife or scissors. Gather a pot and a growing medium like a cactus mix, all-purpose potting soil, or a sandy/peat mix. Optionally, to root your segment in water before planting it, use a clear jar of filtered water.
  2. Each stem that you trim off the mother plant should have one to four segments. Place the segment in a cool, dry place for two to four days until the cut end callouses or dries out to protect the end from rotting.
  3. Plant the cutting about an inch deep in lightly moistened soil. It should take two to three weeks for roots to form.
  4. Only water the plant lightly, letting it dry between waterings. 
  5. Optionally, you can root the cutting in water before planting it. Set the cut end in one to two inches of water, then place it in a window with indirect light. After several weeks, you should have roots at least an inch or two long to plant it (referring to step 3).
  6. You want good rooting to occur before you repot the plant; wait at least eight to 10 weeks before repotting it to a permanent home. The best evidence of good rooting is new leaf or stem growth.

How to Grow Holiday 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 from the seed.

  1. 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.
  2. Cover the pot with clear plastic wrap or enclose it in a clear plastic bag to moisten the growing environment.
  3. Place the plant in a bright, but indirectly lit, window sill.
  4. Do not allow the growing medium to dry out. You can spray the plant's surface with water every day, or you can safely water the plant from the bottom by placing it in a tray of water. The water should wick upwards through the drainage holes. Once the top of the soil is moist, remove the plant from the water tray.
  5. Within two to three weeks, seedlings should emerge. Remove the plastic once you notice seedling growth.
  6. Transplant the seedlings into individual pots when they are large enough to handle.

Potting and Repotting Holiday Cactus

Holiday cactus does not have to be repotted often—every three to four years is sufficient, or when it starts looking ragged or roots grow from the drainage holes. This hardy succulent likes to be a little rootbound. Frequent repotting can damage the plant. Unlike other plants that are best repotted when they display new growth in spring, holiday cactus repotting must wait until blooming ends and the flowers have wilted in late winter or early spring. Never repot the plant while it is actively blooming.

The best pots for cactus plants are terra cotta or clay pots. The pots are porous, aiding in air circulation to the roots, and wicking away water from plants that can be harmed from overwatering. The pot should have many drainage holes or one large one at the bottom of the pot.

When repotting, choose a container that is only one to two inches bigger in diameter than the current one. A much bigger pot than what you have may retain too much moisture or invite insects and plant diseases. 

Overwintering

Holiday cacti are not cold-hardy. These tropical plants can remain outside in USDA 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 may also be removed by blotting them with an alcohol-soaked cotton ball. A holiday cactus may not survive a heavy infestation and may need to be discarded, especially if there are other plants nearby.

Fungal diseases are common when plants are overwatered. Avoid overwatering to prevent fungal infection. Fusarium and Phytophthora are two common holiday cactus fungus 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 holiday cactus may 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 Holiday 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 flowers are showy and colorful but scentless. The best way to ensure that your holiday cactus remains in bloom throughout the winter is by removing the faded flowers or deadheading.

For your holiday cactus to bloom at holiday time, you might need to force it into dormancy, then coax it out. Here's how:

  1. 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.
  2. Keep your holiday cactus cool between 50 to 55 degrees and limit the light it gets for about six to eight weeks.
  3. During the day, it can have indirect light, but it needs 12 to 14 hours of total darkness at night. If the room is warmer than 55 degrees, give your plant an extra couple of hours of darkness each day. If any light can reach the plant anytime during its 12 hours of "night," cover the plant with a dark cloth.
  4. Once flower buds form, move the plant to a bright window. Make sure it is not near any drafts or the cold may cause it to drop its buds. Flowers should start opening within a couple of weeks.

Common Problems With Holiday Cactus

Holiday cacti are long-lived plants that are sensitive to temperature and humidity. They are pretty 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 holiday 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 you have yellowing leaves or stems, leaf spotting, or plant wilting, inspect your plants closely for thrips. Thrips are an insect that looks like thin black slivers or tiny lobster-looking insects. The leaf and stem damage is not caused directly by thrips but by a virus they commonly transmit, impatiens necrotic spot virus. Get rid of the thrips with insecticidal soap or horticultural oil. The plant may rebound if you also remove the plant from its old container to a sterilized container with fresh potting mix. Wilting can also be caused by too little light, insufficient water, or if the plant is rootbound. Change those conditions and monitor closely for improvements.

Leaves Turning Red or Pink

If the leaves of your holiday cactus turn red or pink, it may either be getting too much sun or need water. If your plant is in the window with direct sun, move it back to indirect light. If the soil is dried up to one inch deep, water it more frequently. The rule of thumb is to water a holiday cactus when the top of the soil feels dry.

FAQ
  • How long can a holiday cactus live?

    These beautiful blooming cactuses can last for 20 to 30 years if well cared for.

  • Where should I place holiday cactus in my house?

    Place a holiday cactus within three feet of a large south-, east-, or west-facing window. Keep the plant away from drafts from windows, air conditioners, or heating vents.

  • What are the biggest differences between a Christmas cactus and Thanksgiving cactus?

    The most significant difference between these cacti is bloom time. The Christmas cactus blooms later with magenta or white flowers—closer to the end of December, while Thanksgiving cactus blooms closer to the end of November with more color variety in its flowers (red, pink, peach, purple, orange, or white). Christmas cactus leaves and stems are rounded and more stubby, and Thanksgiving cactus leaf segments are spikey with sharper edges.

Article Sources
The Spruce uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Thanksgiving and Christmas Cacti. Clemson University Cooperative Extension.

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