The Christmas Cactus (Schlumbergera) is a very popular houseplant. Even if you’ve never grown one, you’re probably already familiar with the plant’s bright, tubular flowers. These also make unique gifts around the holidays, and are spectacular alternatives to poinsettias or holly.
Read on to learn more about this colorful house plant, and how to cultivate your own!
What is a Christmas Cactus?
Christmas cacti are easy to care for. However, because of their name, many people wrongly assume, that these plants love arid conditions. In fact, the plant’s natural habitat is the humid rainforests of Brazil. This misconception often leads to the plant being under-watered and struggling to thrive.
Luckily this guide will teach you everything you need to know about caring for a Christmas cactus, including how to get it to flower regularly throughout the year. (Sure, it’ll still be called a Christmas plant, but you’ll get to enjoy its glorious blooms far more often.)
The Christmas Cactus Family
The Christmas cactus is part of a group that’s commonly known as the “holiday cacti”. This group also includes the Easter and Thanksgiving cacti. All three look fairly similar, but if you look closely you’ll notice some subtle differences that will help you to tell them apart.
Easter Cacti have flattened leaves that are edged with rounded teeth. Their flowers are broader than other holiday cacti and are almost daisy-like in appearance. They typically flower in mid spring.
Thanksgiving Cacti also have flattened leaves, but these are edged with pointed teeth. Their flowers are similar to the Christmas cactus and the plant often flowers in late fall. This means that it’s often confused with a Christmas cactus.
Christmas cacti also have flattened leaves. On the margins of the leaves you will notice rounded teeth. The Christmas cactus tends to bloom in early winter.
All three varieties of holiday cacti are commonly found in garden centers, home reno stores, and even some florist shops.
The holiday cacti also make ideal houseplants for pet owners. They’re just one of the many houseplants that are neither toxic nor harmful to your furry friends.
Whether you have a Christmas cactus or another variety, the care and growing requirements are largely the same. This means that our guide is perfect whatever your variety.
Growing a Christmas Cactus
Christmas cacti are native to humid, jungle-type woodlands, and often grow attached to a tree. This means that they do best in a semi-shade position, out of direct light. Daytime temperatures should average around 70°F. In the evening temperatures shouldn’t regularly go below 60°F.
These cacti like humid conditions. Placing the container on a saucer filled with gravel helps to improve humidity levels.
Christmas cacti are normally grown as houseplants. In the warmer, summer months you can place the Christmas cactus outside on the porch or in a shady location during the daytime. Just remember to bring the plant inside when the temperatures start to drop towards 50F.
How to Plant Your Holiday Cactus
Aim to re-pot your Christmas cactus once every two years. This will help the plant to maintain a healthy growth habit. The best time to repot is at the end of March, just as their growing season begins. Choose a clean pot that’s the same size, or slightly larger than the one currently housing the Christmas cactus. Don’t be tempted to repot into a large pot, as these plants like to be snug. Make sure the container has drainage holes.
These cacti do well in most soil types. As a result, they’ll happily grow in a regular or loam-based compost with added leafmold. Just make sure that it’s well-draining. Mixing in a handful of grit will help to improve drainage.
Carefully remove the cactus from the pot and gently shake the plant to remove any loose soil. Place it into the new container, and make sure that the tops of the root sit just below the soil level. When you’re happy with the plant’s position, fill the container with soil. Be careful not to compact the soil as you fill the pot.
Caring for a Christmas Cactus
The Christmas cactus is largely an easy-to-care-for plant. However, there are a few things you can do to ensure that the plant will thrive in your home or office location.
Watering and Feeding
Water as soon as the top inch of the soil feels dry. Soak the plant until water is running out of the drainage holes in the bottom of the container. Make sure you then discard the water. Never let your plants sit in water for a prolonged period. This can cause the roots to become overly soggy and rot.
The plant will require more water while it’s flowering.
After flowering, the Christmas cactus will enter a rest period. This usually lasts from January until March. During this period, the plant will require less water. It may also require cooler temperatures, 55-59F, during this period. This can be provided by simply moving the plant to another room.
A well-cared-for plant that sits in good soil will happily grow without any plant food. However, if you want to give your cactus an extra boost, and encourage flowering, apply a well-balanced houseplant feed. This can be given to the plant every 2 weeks from the spring until fall. A water-soluble feed is easily incorporated into your watering routine.
Reduce feeding to once a month during the fall and winter months.
Christmas cacti don’t require regular pruning. However, older plants can become leggy or congested. Removing the tips as well as damaged or older leaves will help the plant to look healthy. It will also encourage fresh growth to emerge.
The best time to prune your plant is in June. This coincides with the plant’s re-emergence from its dormant period. Pruning now encourages the plant to branch and produce more flowers.
To prune, simple cut away a section or two of each stem. Placing healthy cuttings in damp vermiculite will encourage them to root. This is the easiest form of propagation.
You’ll find it easy to propagate holiday cacti. The simplest method is to take cuttings from healthy foliage.
To propagate, cut away a short Y-shaped segment from the stem tips. You can also take a cutting from the second joint of each leaf or tip.
Place the cutting in moist vermiculite or slightly sandy soil. Plant each cutting to a depth of roughly a quarter of its length. Keep the cuttings out of direct sunlight but in a light location. You’ll also need to keep the soil moist. If the cuttings are successful you will notice signs of growth within a few weeks.
When growth becomes visible, plant the cutting in a container with a mix of loose potting soil, loam, and sand. From here you can grow it on, and care for it, as you would the original plant.
The Christmas cactus is a largely trouble-free plant. The most commonly encountered problem is a failure to bloom, and number of different factors can cause this.
A lack of nighttime darkness can lead to plants failing to flower. Christmas cacti need prolonged exposure to darkness for at least 6 weeks before they will bloom. If you have strong indoor lights, you may need to cover the cactus at night.
The temperature may also be too warm for the plant to flower. Christmas cacti like a temperature between 50 and 55F.
Don’t worry if the cacti sheds its buds. Just keep on caring for it as per this guide’s instructions, and it should flower the following year.
Keep in mind that blossom drop is usually a sign of stress. This can be the result of sudden changes in temperature or light levels, such as being moved to a different room. It may also be a symptom of the soil becoming too dry when the buds are forming.
Pests rarely trouble Christmas cactus plants, which is another point in their favor as low-care house plants. Mealybugs are the most common problem, but they’re easily treated with applications of organic pesticides. Pruning away affected leaves can also help to control infestations.
Shriveling or Scorched Stems
Shriveling stems may be an indication that the plant is either too hot or in an overly sunny location. It can also be a sign of root deterioration. This can be a sign of both over and under-watering. Scorched leaves or stems may also be an indication that the plant is in a too sunny or warm position.
The Christmas cactus, like other holiday cacti, are largely easy to care for. These popular houseplants are gloriously colorful, tubular flowers will cheer up a windowsill or office space. With proper care, a happy plant will flower frequently flower throughout the year, not just at Christmas.