Most people hear the name cactus and think of prickly plants that grow in the desert, but that’s not the case with Christmas cactus. These plants are succulent perennials that hail from Brazilian rainforests. Christmas Cactus care should be geared more towards a tropical plant than an arid desert dweller.
The flat foliage grows in segmented stems that form a gentle arch as they grow longer. The stems can become branched as the plant pushes out new foliage. The leaves have serrated edges and noticeable aerial roots. Mature plants reach about one foot tall and two feet wide. Tubular flowers feature several rows of pointed petals that flair back, exposing the stamens. The blooms are often pink, red, purple, white, or orange. The flowers bloom on the end of the stems and gently hang down.
Types of Holiday Cactus
These plants typically bloom around the holidays, inspiring the name Christmas Cactus. Several varieties of plants look very similar to Christmas cactus plants. The plants bloom at different times and have slightly different leaf shapes. Sometimes these plants are referred to as holiday cactus based on the corresponding holidays that align with their blooming schedules.
Often, all of these plants are referred to as Christmas cactus partly because they look so similar it can be hard to tell them apart. Christmas cactus refers to a specific plant type but is also used as a generic catch-all term. I often use the name Christmas cactus, which you’ll see in this article, but the care requirements for all holiday cacti are similar.
The types of holiday cacti include:
- Christmas Cactus (Schlumbergera buckleyi)
- Easter Cactus (Rhipsalidopsis gaertneri)
- Thanksgiving Cactus (Schlumbergera truncata)
Christmas Cactus Light Requirements
Feature your Christmas cactus plant in medium sunlight. North- and east-facing windows are best for Christmas cactus care. During the winter months, Christmas cactus plants can handle increased light but keep the plant out of direct light, which can damage the foliage. The leaves may turn yellow or pale green if the plant receives too much sunlight.
Sunlight is a big part of getting Christmas cactus plants to bloom. To set flowers, these plants require longer periods of darkness, about 13 hours per day. Consider placing the plant near a north-facing window where it will receive limited light during the fall, and move it near a south-facing window in the winter after buds appear.
How Often to Water Christmas Cactus
Christmas cactus plants like to dry out between watering but don’t like to be as dry as desert cacti. These plants are native to rainforests, so they like moisture but appreciate some dryness between watering. Proper Christmas cactus care requires watering when the top several inches of soil are dry.
Plants in a sunny spot may need water multiple times a week during the summer and just once weekly during the winter. Feel the soil to gauge the dampness. When in doubt, wait to water your Christmas cactus. This plant is a succulent, so let it dry out, but if the leaves appear shriveled, it is too dry. Water right away.
Best Soil for Christmas Cactus
Christmas Cactus plants in nature are epiphytic, which means they latch onto other plants to seek a good position. Christmas cacti need soil as houseplants, but they are not very picky about their soil mix. The soil should be loamy, moist, and well-drained. Expect the best results with neutral to acidic soil for an expert level of Christmas cactus care.
Temperature for Christmas Cactus
Christmas cactus care is generally rather easy, but the temperature is the one sticking point this plant is unwilling to negotiate. Temperature is essential if you want your plant to bloom. Generally, Christmas cactus plants prefer 70° to 80° F when actively growing. Plants typically grow from April to September, so keeping them warm is relatively easy during the summer. Keep the plants away from air conditioning vents; ideally, place them in an area of your home that is not climate controlled during the summer.
Once your Christmas cactus has flower buds, it prefers chillier temperatures. In nature, the plant would experience temperatures between 55° and 65° degrees F. This is not reasonable in your home during the winter, so if you have a spot that is not as warm, but has good light, locate the plant there.
Temperature fluctuations are bad news for Christmas cactus plants, especially during the flowering cycle. Avoid placing the plant in areas without drafts that are away from heating and cooling vents.
Christmas Cactus Humidity
Christmas cactus are adaptable, but they really like increased humidity. Dampness in the air is a vital part of Christmas cactus care. They are not as humidity dependent as prayer plants, but they appreciate extra dampness and above-average humidity. Dry air can be problematic, so use a pebble tray to give the plant extra moisture during the winter.
Christmas Cactus Fertilizer
Keep your plant happy and flourishing with regular doses of balanced, water-soluble fertilizer. Feed your plant once each month during the spring and summer. Stop fertilizing Christmas cactus plants in the fall after flower buds emerge. Get back on the fertilizing schedule when the last of the flowers fade.
Pruning Christmas Cactus
Pruning is not necessary for Christmas cactus care, but it helps the plant thrive. Trim the plant after flowering has stopped. Remove any lopsided stems and strive to create a consistent, rounded appearance. Pruning Christmas cactus encourages the plant to push out new growth, resulting in a fuller plant with branched stems. This plant sets flowers at the end of the stems, so the more stems, the more flowers the plant can produce.
Remove stems by gently twisting two neighboring leaf segments. You can also use clean, sharp pruning shears to cut the stem directly where one leaf connects to the previous leaf.
When to Repot Christmas Cactus
Some plants like to be cozy in their pot, and the Christmas cactus is one of them. This blooming beauty likes to be rootbound and is content to spend several years in the same container. Proper Christmas cactus care requires repotting every three to four years. You’ll know it’s time for a new pot when the roots emerge through the drainage hole or growth has slowed or stopped.
Repot after the plant has dropped the last of its flowers. Select a larger pot when repotting. The new pot must have drainage. Terra cotta and unglazed clay pots are best for Christmas cactus plants because they allow moisture in the soil to evaporate, so the roots can completely dry out.
Christmas Cactus Propagation
Save those sections removed during pruning to propagate and create new plants. Growing more plants allows you to fill in empty spaces in the pot and create a more robust-looking plant. You can also gift the new plants to friends and family.
Christmas cactus cuttings can be propagated in soil or water, although I have had more success with soil propagating. Each cutting should have three to five leaves. Leave the cuttings out for a few days after removing them from the main plant, so the cut end can dry and callous over.
Place the cut end in water. Roots will form in several weeks, and the cutting can be transferred to the soil when the roots are several inches long. Keep the soil consistently damp for the first couple of weeks to help the new plant transition to life in soil.
Place the dried end in soil about one inch deep. Lightly water the soil so it is moist but not saturated. Place the cuttings in a sunny, humid spot. Roots will develop in three to four weeks. Gently tug on the plant; if you feel any resistance, the cutting has set roots, and you have a new plant. New plants can get onto a regular watering schedule and should dry out between drinks.
Why Isn’t My Christmas Cactus Blooming?
Flowering plants only bloom when the conditions are right. Plants that are extremely rootbound, underfed, or not receiving the proper care will not set flowers. The first thing to do if your Christmas Cactus is not blooming is to check to see if the plant is ready for a larger pot and fresh soil. A regular fertilizing routine will increase the odds of your plant blooming.
Christmas Cactus bloom seasonally. The plant should set flowers in the fall and bloom during the winter. Plants may get on their own schedule since the conditions in a home are more consistent.
Are Christmas Cactus Pet Friendly?
Christmas cactus plants are pet-friendly, making this a thoughtful gift for friends or family with pets. Eating too much of anything can be an issue, so while the foliage and flowers are not poisonous to cats and dogs, your pet may have gastrointestinal problems if they chow down on a significant portion of the plant.
Christmas Cactus Styling Tips
Feature Christmas cactus plants in a hanging basket so the stems can drape and hang down. This plant looks best on a high perch so that you can enjoy the foliage and, eventually, the flowers.
Christmas Cactus Care Tips
Christmas cactus care is generally easy. This is an adaptable plant that likes high humidity and warm temperatures, as found in nature. Christmas cactus can be particular if you want them to bloom, but regulating the sunlight and routinely fertilizing it can encourage them to set flower buds.