Move over poinsettia, the Christmas cactus is in town this holiday season! And we are going to learn everything about Christmas cactus care in this article.
The Christmas cactus (the Schlumbergera x buckleyi) is a gorgeous plant from the cacti family. It blooms in late November or early December.
They’re rarely talked about when discussing the flowers of the jolly holiday season. It’s a shame considering the joy and beauty it brings into any home. In this article, we will cover everything you need to know about Christmas cactus care.
The plant originates from the coastal mountains of southeastern Brazil. You can find these cacti in places like Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo.
The Christmas cactus has different needs than most succulents. The moist humid conditions of Brazil are a bit different than the dry weather of the desert.
Brazil is known for its’ constant rain. So, unlike cacti from the desert, the Christmas cactus needs plenty of water to thrive and bloom.
They even grow on rocks and small mossy trees.
Which is why it’s important to know how to care for your Christmas cactus. Your instincts to treat it like the average succulent won’t do you well. Christmas cactus care is distinct.
So, we created this Christmas cactus care guide so you can learn everything you need to know for a healthy cactus.
- 1 Christmas Cactus Care Guide
- 2 Christmas Cactus Care: Propagation Steps
- 3 Varieties of Holiday Cacti
- 4 Common Problems with the Christmas Cactus
- 5 Tips for an Unhappy Christmas Cactus
- 6 Christmas Cactus Care FAQ
- 7 Conclusion
Christmas Cactus Care Guide
The Christmas cactus is an epiphyte. This means the cactus grows on rocks, small trees covered in moss, and on the trunks of big trees.
So, it doesn’t get its’ hydration from the soil. Most of the moisture this cactus gets is from the humid air.
But that heavy humid air provides the cactus with lots of moisture. These cacti need plenty of water for a healthy life.
Lots of water means you need soil that has great drainage. Without that drainage, the water will build up in the soil. Too much moisture can lead to our enemy, wet feet.
There are plenty of potting soils on the market with everything you need. They have a mix of peat and leafmould.
But you can also create your own Christmas cactus-friendly potting soil.
The perfect mixture for a Christmas cactus includes:
- potting soil
- milled peat
This is all the information to cover the first base of Christmas cactus care, getting the soil right.
When it comes to light for a Christmas cactus, you have to be very careful. They’re sensitive to too much direct light, though the cactus is more tolerant than its’ siblings.
Regardless, it’s unhealthy for this cactus to have too much light. It can dry out. Remember, it needs its’ hydration. Or the leaves can burn.
A sign of too much exposure (besides the obvious signs) is the stem turning red.
Of course, too little light means the cactus won’t flower.
You have to achieve the perfect balance of bright and indirect light. And you can start by placing your cactus in a north or east-facing window. Read our guide on light levels for plants.
Facing north or east, the cactus isn’t going to receive direct sunlight.
For the flowers to form, a Christmas cactus needs at least 12 hours of darkness when the temperature is 55F to 70F. And let me tell you one thing.
Having a flowering Christmas cactus is the ultimate gratification of Christmas cactus care.
The cactus should get about 16 hours of darkness a day when the room temperature is over 70F.
When your Christmas cactus is going through the dark cycle of the day, it needs complete darkness. There should be zero light in that room.
If a dark room isn’t plausible for you, you can cover your cactus up.
As we’ve stated before, the Christmas cactus care means sufficient hydration. This is unlike other succulents.
It needs watering often during spring and summer. This is the season your cactus grows.
When you water your cactus, wait until the soil is almost dry so the water doesn’t build up.
To check how moist the soil is, stick your finger in the soil up to your knuckle. If it’s dry through all the way through, it’s time to water the Christmas cactus.
For spring and summer, watering is about every two to three days.
Don’t forget to mist the leaves when you water your cactus as well. Your cactus will thank you later when the flowers start to bloom right in front of your eyes.
For the cold months, you water the cactus a lot less. This will start around the middle of October.
This is the period when the flowers start to bloom. According to the University of Michigan, it is good practice to increase the amount of watering when your Christmas cactus is blooming. Yet another tip to get your Christmas cactus care on point.
While the Christmas cactus needs high humidity, the temperature needs to be normal.
It doesn’t need to be hot as heaven in your home for the right Christmas cactus care.
During the day, the room temperature should be between 60°F to 70°F (16°C – 21°C). At night, the temperature should be between 50F to 55F (10°C – 13°C).
The Christmas cactus originates in Brazil, where the humidity is crazy high. And even as a houseplant, the humidity in the room needs to be high.
The humidity needs to be between 50% to 60% for the best Christmas cactus care.
If you’re having problems creating the right humidity for your cactus, you can try the pebble tray method.
Take a tray and fill it with pebbles. Then you fill it with water until it’s sitting right underneath the pebbles. Place your plant pot on the pebbles.
As the water evaporates, it rises and creates humidity for your cactus. And when the water is all gone, you only need to refill it.
A Christmas cactus needs fertilizing, like all houseplants. It can’t gain all the nutrients it needs from the soil alone. Without fertilization your Christmas cactus care game is incomplete.
The joints will break down and break apart when it has a lack of the right nutrients.
A few types of fertilizer for this cactus include half-strength water-soluble formula (20-20-20) and bloom fertilizer. Read everything about fertilizers in our complete guide.
It should have equal amounts of nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium.
From April to October, you should be fertilizing your cactus every two or three weeks. This is when leaf growth starts.
But you have to stop fertilizing in late September. You should not that in your Christmas cactus care notebook. You don’t want to fertilize your cactus when the flowers start to bud or they will fall off your plant.
See, when you fertilize your cactus when it’s not growing, salt builds up in the soil. Which leads to either the buds not producing at all. Or the buds the cactus does have falls off.
Your cactus needs more magnesium than most fertilizers have to offer. To get this extra magnesium, you can mix a teaspoon of Epsom salt per gallon of water.
Add the Epsom salts every other time you water your Christmas cactus.
It’s easy to propagate a Christmas cactus using stem cuttings. We’ll walk you through the propagation steps below! It is always great to take care of a plant that is easy to propagate. For me personally, easy propagation is an additional benefit of Christmas cactus care.
The Christmas Cactus can range in size. There’s no rule on how big they’ll get. They do their own thing when it comes to growing.
One thing you’ll notice is that the majority of the time the cactus won’t grow much in height. It grows in width, as does it’s hanging branches.
The hanging branches can grow up to three feet long. The width of the rest of the plant usually expands somewhere between six inches and ten inches.
So don’t be disappointed if your Christmas cactus care doesn’t lead to a major increase in height.
You re-pot a Christmas cactus less often than you would a lot of other houseplants. Christmas cactus care is different in this regard. You’re going to re-pot the cactus about every three years.
You don’t want to re-pot it right when the roots expand. Unlike most plants, these cacti feel comfortable with crowded roots.
It makes the cactus feel grounded, no pun intended. It also creates the best situation for the flowers to bloom.
Of course, the roots will be too much for the pot at some point. So, you’ll need to re-pot it in a slightly larger pot.
Re-potting is done after the cactus has finished blooming. Trying to re-pot a blooming cactus can ruin the entire blooming process.
Most Christmas cacti stop blooming around late winter, sometimes early springtime. You didn’t do anything wrong in your Christmas cactus care, that is just the way it works. Once the cactus starts to get a bit droopy, you’re good to go.
Christmas Cactus Care: Propagation Steps
It might seem as if propagating a Christmas cactus is the difficult part of Christmas cactus care. But it’s as easy as propagating any other plant.
Cuttings are the only way to go when it comes to this process. And the process should only be done during springtime!
- Your very first step is to gather the cuttings. You’ll need pruning shears for this task instead of your normal household pair of scissors. You clip the top Y-shaped cutting from the tip of the stem. Cut down to two or three segments.
- Once your cuttings are ready, let them sit out to dry for two or three days. You should place them in a cool room. Letting them sit out and dry allows them to form a callus on the cut end.
- In the meantime, get your soil and pot ready. If you want to get dirty and more hands-on, try making your own soil. The best soil mix includes normal potting soil, compost, perlite, and milled peat. The pot should have drainage holes at the bottom. Pour the soil out into the pot.
- Now that the cuttings are ready to go, you’re going to start the rooting process. Place your cutting in the soil mix you created. It should sit about a quarter inch below the soil.
- Place your cuttings in an area where it can get bright but indirect sunlight. At this point, you don’t want to water the cutting or cuttings too much.
- After about two weeks, you’ll notice the tip of the leaves starts growing. They’ll start to turn red. This is a sign that the rooting has begun.
- Once you’ve finished most of the rooting you’re on your way to a beautiful budded Christmas cactus. You’re going to start caring for it, as you would if you bought it as a full-grown plant. The Christmas cactus care basically is the same.
Varieties of Holiday Cacti
The Christmas cactus isn’t the only holiday cactus you can check out. There are two other cool holiday cacti to consider related to Christmas cactus care.
Rhipsalidopsis gaertneri (Easter Cactus)
The Easter cactus always blooms in springtime. The general Christmas cactus care applies to this one as match as to the Thanksgiving cactus. It’s a gorgeous cactus with gorgeous pink (sometimes orange or red) flowers. The pink flowers hang from the flat segmented leaves.
Schlumbergera truncata (Thanksgiving Cactus)
The Thanksgiving cactus can bloom in either October or November. And it needs fewer daylight hours than the others. The leaves on one of these cactus are broad and the edges are serrated.
Common Problems with the Christmas Cactus
One great aspect of a Christmas cactus care is that they’re not as prone to bugs as many other houseplants. It’s uncommon for an infestation though it does happen sometimes.
There are still a couple of nasty bugs to look out for with the Christmas cactus.
Mealybugs are one of the pests you might come across when caring for a Christmas cactus.
These bugs eat away at your cactus and they eat any new growth. No one knows for sure what causes mealybugs to attack.
They hide out in the small spaces on your cactus. And they hang out on small white webs they weave.
Mealybugs spread fast so it’s important to get rid of them as soon as you discover them.
First, make sure your cactus isn’t near any other houseplants so the mealybugs don’t spread.
Take a cotton swab and drip it in 70% isopropyl alcohol. Wipe your cactus down, focusing on the areas where the branches and the stem of it connect.
There are also root mealybugs. These mealybugs attack the roots and live in the soil. So, you have to re-pot your cactus with new soil.
You should clean the cactus with the alcohol to make sure they’re not lingering on it.
Aphids are the second bug you have to worry about. These greenish pests are tiny and hard to see.
You want to get rid of them as fast as you can because they multiple. And these bugs suck all the nutrients out of your cactus.
Like with the mealybugs, you can use isopropyl alcohol to clean all parts of your cactus.
Tips for an Unhappy Christmas Cactus
You want to take the best care of your Christmas cactus, of course. But you can’t prevent every issue you’ll come across in terms of Christmas cactus care. And you might make mistakes along the way.
Here are the common issues you’ll face when caring for your cactus.
Your Christmas Cactus is Losing Blossoms
Losing blossoms is the most common problem we’ve come in Christmas cactus care. And you’ve been asked about it many times.
Seeing your cactus lose blossoms is frightening. You might assume that your cactus is dying and there’s no going back. But don’t panic yet!
It’s common for a Christmas cactus to have blossoms falling off at some time during its’ lifetime.
There are several causes. They include the wrong humidity, too little or too much light, the wrong room temperature, or even dry soil.
Make yourself a checklist of all the factors of a healthy Christmas cactus care. This way you can go through each factor to see if it’s causing you problems.
Your Christmas Cactus Has Gray Fuzzy Patterns on the Leaves
Those grey fuzzy things on the leaves of your Christmas cactus are mould. Gray mould and brown lesions mean the cactus has the botrytis blight. That is the nasty part of Christmas cactus care no one like to talk about. But don’t worry, we have got you covered.
Boytrytis blight is a common fungus for cacti. Too high humidity can cause spores. Since cacti need high humidity, it’s easy for the spores to develop.
The first thing you need to do is lower the humidity in the room. Then you need to separate the infected cactus from any other plants or it’ll spread.
You have to cut all the infected blossoms and infected areas from your cactus right away. Mix two tablespoons of fungicide with a gallon of water.
Apply the mix to the entire plant. Make sure you coat it well.
In four weeks, reapply the same mix if your cactus still has mold. If it’s too far gone, your cactus won’t survive.
Let’s now look into a different aspect of Christmas cactus care gone wrong.
Your Christmas Cactus Has a Yellow-Spotted Stem
A Christmas cactus with a yellow-spotted stem has the virus impatiens necrotic spot virus or INSV.
INSV is passed by the pest flower thrips. They feed on an infected plant and move on to the next plant to feed. The virus is transmitted to the new plant.
This is a devastating virus. Once a plant has INSV, it always has INSV. It’s going to die.
Unfortunately, there’s no way of saving an infected plant no matter how good your Christmas cactus care is. You have to destroy it.
But you can protect your other houseplants from infestation by the thrips. And protecting them from catching the virus. You want to separate all them until you know they’re safe.
Thrips are hard to see because they’re teensy tiny creatures with wings. But you can get rid of them with insecticidal soap.
You have to gently wash your entire cactus down with the soap. Since thrips lay eggs, you’ll have to wash your cactus again to ensure you’ve gotten all the bugs.
Christmas Cactus Care FAQ
How do I prune my Christmas cactus?
Pruning a Christmas cactus can seem daunting because it’s not like other houseplants. It’s actually easier.
You can twist between each segment and pull to separate. Or you can cut between each segment.
Why won’t my Christmas cactus root in water?
It’s hard to root a Christmas cactus in water. Almost impossible. You’re better off rooting your cactus in soil.
Why won’t my Christmas cactus bloom?
When your buds form, it’s going to be another 12 weeks until they start to bloom. You might be expecting them too early in the process.
If that’s not the issue, cut down on watering the cactus and make sure the room temperature is between 50F and 55F.
Can I revive my limp Christmas cactus?
There is a chance you can revive your Christmas cactus. Either your cactus is getting too much direct sunlight or it’s not getting enough water.
Up the amount of water you’re using and track it so you don’t over-water the cactus either. And move your cactus from any direct sunlight.
Christmas Cactus Care becomes most relevant when the holiday seasons arrive, as many people will acquire a Christmas cactus and will be confronted with how to care best for it.
There is no real secret, however, the best thing you can do is to realize that the Christmas Cactus care is different from the care of general cacti. It needs more humidity than most cacti and tolerates less direct light.
With the proper care you can make sure that your Christmas Cactus can be enjoyed well beyond a single season.
Marcel runs the place around here. He has a deep passion for houseplants & gardening and is constantly on the lookout for yet another special plant to add to his arsenal of houseplants, succulents & cacti.
Marcel is also the founder of Iseli International Commerce, a sole proprietorship company that publishes a variety of websites and online magazines.