How To Care for a Christmas Cactus
Schlumbergera (shlum-BER-ger-uh) cacti, more commonly referred to as Christmas cacti, are very popular houseplants due to their beautiful, tropical blooms that emerge during the coldest and darkest part of the year. When all other plants are in a state of dormancy or are experiencing slowed growth due to the cold temperatures and limited light, the Christmas cactus is thriving and at its peak. These fascinating plants, while they are not difficult to care for, do require different care than most other houseplants, cacti, or succulents due to the fact that they are most actively growing when the majority of other plants are least active. So, let's learn about how to care for a Christmas cactus so that you can keep your plants happy, beautiful, and blooming!
What is The Difference Between Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Easter Cactus?
First of all, what is the difference between a Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Easter cactus? We are sure you have all run into some confusion regarding this question. Many times, the terms Christmas Cactus, Thanksgiving Cactus, or Easter Cactus are used interchangeably to describe any plant that is similar in appearance. Some people even refer to these houseplants simply as Holiday Cacti to help avoid any confusion altogether. Many Holiday Cacti are even often mislabeled in garden centers everywhere due to their similarities. However, while all three plants do look quite similar, they do have their differences! These three different cacti supposedly get their names from the approximate time of year in which they bloom, though this timing is not precise and should not be relied upon for determining which type of plant you have. Here are some of the differences between these different types of cacti and how to differentiate between them:
Thanksgiving Cactus (Schlumbergera truncata):
The Thanksgiving cactus is the easiest to tell apart from the others due to the shape of its leaves. It is also sometimes referred to as a Crab Cactus because of the shape of the leaves, having pointed, claw-like projections along the sides of each leaf segment. The flowers of the Thanksgiving cactus are very similar to the flowers of the Christmas cactus, being tubular and coming in a variety of colors.
Christmas Cactus (Schlumbergera bridgesii):
The leaves of the Christmas cactus have projections that are rounded and often more narrow. Sometimes they can almost take on more of a teardrop shape. The flowers of the Christmas cactus are very similar to those of the Thanksgiving cactus, having a tubular shape, numerous petals, and coming in a variety of colors including purple, red, white, pink, and more!
Easter Cactus (Rhipsalidopsis gaertneri):
Easter cactus is probably the easiest to differentiate. It has very rounded, almost scalloped edges that are centralized on the leaf. The leaf segments also tend to be slightly thicker and more fleshy than the Schlumbergera cacti. The flowers of Easter cacti are also easy to differentiate, having a distinct star shape. Easter cacti also come in a variety of colors!
Christmas Cactus Care Tips
Christmas cactus, Easter cactus, and Thanksgiving cactus all require the same care, so regardless of which type of Holiday cactus you have or despite how confident you are in properly IDing your plant, the following care instructions will help ensure that your plant is able to grow strong, stay healthy, and produce beautiful blooms.
Lighting Requirements for Christmas Cactus
Christmas cacti grow best in bright indirect light. The foliage of these plants can be sensitive to direct sun exposure and can easily sustain damage if placed in direct sun. The only time Christmas cactus can handle direct sun exposure is in the winter when the sun is less intense and the plant is actively growing. Otherwise, it is recommended to keep your Christmas cactus in a north or east-facing window. Such windows rarely receive direct sun and will be ideal for the tender foliage of these houseplants. If kept in a room with south or west-facing windows, be sure to position the plant several feet away from any windows so as to protect it from intense sun exposure during the summer months. The rich green foliage may begin to turn pale and yellow if the plant is exposed to too much sun.
Watering Your Christmas Cactus
Christmas cacti, though they are technically a cactus, have a more tropical origin than most other cacti. Due to this, your Christmas cactus will require more water than the other desert plants in your home and actually prefer their soil to stay slightly moist. They prefer to be watered thoroughly, though infrequently, and they do not like their soil to dry out entirely. Stick your finger 2 inches into the soil and if the soil feels dry, it's time to water. Water thoroughly and allow the excess water to drain completely before returning the plant to its spot in your home. Be careful not to water your Christmas cactus too often, as an overwatered plant may begin to suffer from root rot. The leaves of an underwatered plant will begin to shrivel or look wrinkly due to the lack of moisture.
What Soil to Plant Christmas Cactus In
Planting your Christmas cactus in the right soil is one of the best things you can do to ensure its health. The right soil will hold onto some moisture, but not so much that it will cause the plant to become unhealthy. The ideal soil type for Christmas cacti is light and well-draining. We recommend starting with an all-purpose potting soil and amending the soil with a mixture of perlite, sand, and lava rock. Some cactus potting mixes may be suitable on their own also. Keep in mind that the more well-draining your soil mixture is, the more frequently it may need to be watered. If your Christmas cactus is planted in an all-purpose potting mix that has not been amended at all, that soil will retain more water and may not need to be watered as frequently. Keep an eye on your plant and if you notice that the soil takes more than a couple of weeks to dry out, you should repot it in a medium that drains better. If you can't seem to water your plant often enough to keep the foliage from drying out and shriveling, then your soil may drain too freely and you may want to repot it in a mixture that is more suitable. We do not recommend potting your Christmas cactus in a cactus rock mix as this will not provide the plant with as much moisture as it prefers and can limit the root growth of these tropical beauties. For more information on soil amendments and amending your soil for houseplants, check out our blog on Soil Amendments: How to Amend Soil for Your Houseplants.
Temperature and Humidity Requirements for Schlumbergera
In general, Christmas cacti will handle the normal temperature of your home just fine. Unlike other houseplants that tend to struggle during the winter with the naturally lower temperatures, your Christmas cactus actually needs cooler temperatures in the winter! Ideally, they prefer summer temperatures to be around 70 degrees Fahrenheit and winter temperatures to be around 55-65 degrees Fahrenheit. The cold temperatures and darkness that are typical in winter are actually what causes the buds to form, but we will talk about that more below. Your Christmas cactus will benefit from some extra humidity from a humidifier or pebble tray in dry climates, though this is not a deal breaker. While they do like cooler temperatures, Christmas cacti will not respond well to sudden exposure to drafts of air or extreme temperatures, so positioning them next to a door that is opened frequently or an air vent that blasts cold or hot air onto your plant is not recommended as this can cause the plant to go into shock, dropping its buds and flowers and, in extreme cases, dying altogether.
How to Fertilize Christmas Cactus
Like any other houseplant, your Christmas cactus will benefit from being fertilized periodically while it is actively growing. We recommend using a fertilizer that is high in phosphorous as this helps to encourage flowering plants to bloom. Always follow the instructions that are specific to the fertilizer you choose. Each fertilizer is different, having different mixing ratios and application frequencies, and over-fertilizing your plant can easily do much more harm than good. Too much fertilizer can cause burn damage to the roots of your plants, which can be difficult for them to recover from depending on the extent of the damage. Fertilizing a plant that is not actively growing can also be dangerous since the plant will not be using up the fertilizer as quickly as it would if it were actively growing. For this reason, it is best to cut back on fertilizing or pause your fertilizing efforts altogether until you notice new growth. Many people like to fertilize their Christmas cactus throughout the spring, summer, and fall to help encourage abundant blooming in late fall/early winter, and then cut back on fertilizing after the plant has bloomed, only picking back up on fertilizing once new foliage growth is noticed.
How to Propagate Christmas Cactus
Christmas cacti are very easy to propagate, making this a fun plant to take cuttings of and share with friends! It is best to take cuttings of your Christmas cactus a month or two after it has finished blooming and before it begins to set new blooms in the fall. As with taking cuttings of any other plant, be sure to use a sterile and sharp knife or pair of scissors. A clean cut will help your plant heal better and will keep the wounded part of your plant from becoming infected. Taking cuttings of your plant or pruning it back every season can help to promote fuller, more bushy growth as cutting back your plant forces it to branch out more. This will also result in more blooms in subsequent years! Up to 1/3 of your plant can be cut back without harming the plant, and all of these cuttings can be rooted either in water or in soil.
Here are the steps for how to propagate Christmas Cactus:
Use sharp, sterilized scissors or a knife to make a clean cut. Cut sections of stems with 3-5 segments each. Less than this and the cutting may not have enough energy to root, and more than this may require too much energy to sustain also resulting in no root growth.
Leave your cuttings out for 2-4 days before planting or placing in water. This will allow the cut ends to callous over, which will protect the cuttings from rot. Never place a cutting directly in water or moist soil and always allow cuttings to callous over first!
For soil propagations: Take your cuttings and place them approximately an inch deep in slightly moistened soil, lightly packing the soil in around the cuttings to keep them secure and upright.
Water your cuttings periodically, letting the soil dry out between waterings. A plastic bag can be used to cover your cuttings, keeping in more moisture and humidity and helping to encourage rooting. The cuttings should begin to form roots after 2-3 weeks, though this could take longer.
Allow your cuttings to grow in their container for a year or so, treating them as you would a mature plant, and repot them into a larger container when necessary!
For water propagations: You can also place your cuttings in a small glass of filtered water if you prefer to propagate your cuttings this way. After they have been given time to callous over, make sure the tips of your cuttings are submerged in 1-2 inches of water. Submerging too much of the cutting can lead to rot.
Keep your cutting in a window that receives bright indirect light and swap out the water if it begins to turn green or murky. You should start to see roots growing in 2-3 weeks.
For water propagations, it is important to let the roots develop for several weeks before planting in soil. Planting in soil too soon will result in the plant dying. Wait at least 8-10 weeks before potting in soil. A sure sign of healthy root growth is new leaf or stem growth.
How To Pot a Christmas Cactus
Christmas cacti are among the plants that do not require yearly repotting. They actually prefer for their roots to be slightly root-bound, and frequent repotting can cause damage or stress to the plant that may result in it not blooming for a while. In general, a healthy Christmas cactus will benefit from repotting every 3-4 years. You can repot it sooner than this if you notice the foliage beginning to look somewhat ragged or if a lot of roots are beginning to emerge from the drainage hole of your current container. When you do repot your Christmas cactus, wait until after it has bloomed and the flowers have wilted. This is usually sometime around late winter or early spring. Repotting while the plant is actively blooming is never recommended as this will interrupt the blooming cycle and result in the blooms prematurely dying or falling off.
Common Pests and Issues for Christmas Cactus
Pests that are most common to see infesting Christmas cacti, Thanksgiving cacti, or even Easter cacti are fungus gnats, thrips, aphids, spider mites, and mealybugs. These pests can be contracted number of different ways, whether that be pests getting in from outside, infested plants being brought indoors, and the like. Inspecting your plants regularly is the best way to notice an infestation quickly and address it before it is too late. Your plant may not be able to recover from a heavy infestation, but a mild infestation is manageable. One of our favorite products to use is Captain Jack's Deadbug Brew. This product is highly effective on aphids, spider mites, thrips, and more! Getting rid of fungus gnats in your houseplants requires some different approaches that you can learn all about in our blog on How To Get Rid of Gnats in Houseplants. Many pests lay their eggs in the soil of your plant, so treating them topically as well as replacing the soil your Christmas cactus is planted in will be the best way to prevent a comeback. Certain systemic insect control products can be used also. Such products are toxic to pests, so when the solution is soaked up by the plant, it then kills any unwanted pests that decide to feed on your plant. Christmas cacti may also contract fungal diseases. Such diseases are almost always a result of overwatering and can be easily avoided by making sure to not overwater. Always check your soil before watering to ensure that it has had a chance to dry out slightly, and adjust your watering schedule based on the season.
When Do Christmas Cactus Bloom?
Christmas cactus, though they are often thought to bloom right around the Christmas season due to their name, can bloom at almost any point throughout the winter season. The increased amount of darkness in the winter combined with cooler temperatures is actually what encourages the blooms to set, so they will be most likely to bloom at the height of winter when they are getting anywhere from 12-14 hours of darkness. You can encourage your Christmas cactus to bloom at a specific time by forcing it into an early dormancy and then creating the right circumstances for blooming, or you can just let it do its thing and see what happens. Either way, it's up to you and depends on how much work you are willing to do!
Where To Buy Christmas Cactus
Christmas cacti can generally be found at your local garden center. While they are definitely more commonly seen in greenhouses around the holiday season, many plant stores carry them year-round due to their beauty and popularity! If you are interested in adopting a Christmas cactus of your own, stop by Bath Garden Center or shop for Christmas cactus online! And if you have any additional questions about how to care for a Christmas cactus, how to pot a Christmas cactus, or anything else having to do with Christmas cactus care, please let us know. We are always more than happy to help and are here to support you throughout all of your plant-related endeavors.