Christmas (or holiday) cactus is one of the most popular winter-blooming houseplants, and with good reason. Its flat, oval-shaped green stems and the flush of blooms it provides are guaranteed to brighten up any room during the darker, colder days of winter.
What Is a Christmas Cactus?
The Christmas cactus is the popular term for members of the genus schlumbergera. This plant is easily identified by its stems of flat, oval, pointed disks; its dark green foliage, and its brightly colored flowers, most commonly in pink, yellow, orange, and red.
These plants are forest cacti and are native to the rain forests located on the mountains of southeastern Brazil, north of Rio de Janeiro. Because it blooms around November and December, the Christmas cactus has become popular as a holiday gift. It's also frequently referred to as a holiday cactus and zygocactus, once its proper biological name.
Christmas cactus blooms for weeks at a time, often in the darkest part of winter, which is another reason it has so many fans.
Caring for a Christmas Cactus
A holiday cactus requires relatively little care. There are a few important things to keep in mind to grow a healthy, lush Christmas cactus that will bloom year after year; a properly cared-for plant can live for 20 years or more.
Light, Humidity and Temperature
Christmas cactus needs bright, indirect light. An east-facing window is perfect. Too much bright light will result in bleaching or burned looking leaves, but too little light will affect how well your Christmas cactus blooms.
Christmas cactus does well in average indoor temperatures, though cooler temps will help it bloom (more on that later.) However, you should make sure it doesn't freeze, and it should be kept away from cold drafts or heating vents.
Because they're rainforest plants, they also like a fair bit of humidity. Setting your Christmas cactus on a tray of pebbles and water will add humidity to the air around the plant.
It's a good idea to find a good spot for your Christmas cactus, and, once you have it there, resist moving it around a lot. The stems are fairly brittle and fragile, and break off easily.
Christmas cactuses like a bit more water than most succulents or cacti do. They generally need to be watered when the top inch of soil is dry. Don't water more often than that, because keeping the soil too wet can result in root rot.
When you water, water well, so that the water runs out the drainage holes in the bottom of the pot. Let it drain completely, pouring out any water that gathers in the drainage saucer.
It's a good idea to monitor the moisture level a bit more during blooming and make sure it's getting adequate water, because this will help the blooms last longer.
Christmas cacti should be fertilized every two to three weeks during spring, summer, and early fall with a balanced houseplant fertilizer. During winter and late fall, it only needs to be fertilized once per month.
Repotting and Pruning
You'll need to repot your Christmas cactus every two to three years or so to prevent it from getting rootbound. When repotting, you can use any good quality potting mix. Regular cacti and succulent potting mixes dry out a bit too fast for Christmas cacti.
You'll also want to prune your Christmas cactus after it's done blooming. This is a good time to snip a few sections off of each stem. Doing so will make the plant branch more, appearing fuller and (more importantly) getting even more blooms the next time around, since each of those branching stems can bloom.
Pruning your Christmas cactus is also an excellent time to propagate, since they grow well from cuttings.
Propagating Christmas cactus is pretty straightforward, and they form new roots in just a few weeks.
- Cut a short segment of healthy stem from your plant. This should be a few inches long.
- Press the cut end of the stem into potting mix, pressing it down about a quarter of its total length. This helps it stay secured in the potting mix until roots form.
- Water evenly.
- Place your cutting in bright, indirect light and keep it watered.
- You should have roots and some new growth in about four to six weeks.
Christmas Cactus Pests and Problems
Overall, Christmas cacti are pretty low maintenance and not prone to many pest or disease problems. There are a few things to watch out for, however.
- Bleached or sunburnt leaves are a sign that your Christmas cactus is getting too much light. Move it a bit further away from the window or light source.
- Yellow leaves are a sign that the plant is being over-watered and root rot is starting to set in. Cut back on the watering and make sure to let the top inch of soil dry out between waterings. Also, don't let the plant sit in water; empty the tray beneath the pot after each watering.
- Blossom drop is often caused by a change in the environment, and is the equivalent of your Christmas cactus pouting. Changes in light levels, temperature, or humidity can all cause Christmas cactus to start dropping its buds, which is another reason to not move it around much once you find a good spot for it in your home.
- Mealybugs are small, oval-shaped white insects that can sometimes be seen on the stems of plants. They're often confused for a fungus because of their coloration. To get rid of them, spray the plant with a mix of water with a few drops of dish detergent and about half of a cup of rubbing alcohol.
Getting Your Cactus to Bloom
There are a few tricks to getting your cactus to bloom, and many of them require trying to mimic its natural environment. The two main ways to do this are either to expose it to cooler temperatures or longer periods of darkness, and maybe both if you want to be sure it'll bloom in time for the holidays.
Here's a schedule for how to do this.
- In mid-October, reduce watering and stop fertilizing. You essentially want to send your Christmas cactus into dormancy.
- Slowly start giving it more darkness. This will mean moving it either into a dark room or closet for a bit longer every day, while keeping it in bright indirect light during the daytime. To encourage blooms, it needs 12 to 14 hours of complete darkness overnight for six to eight weeks.
- If this room or closet is cool (50 to 55 degrees Fahrenheit), that would be even better.
- At around six to eight weeks, you should start seeing flower buds forming at the tips of the branches. At this point, stop moving into the dark room or closet overnight (remember that changes in position/lighting can cause flower buds to drop).
- Continue watering as usual, and begin feeding monthly once flower buds appear.
Use this schedule, counting back six to eight weeks, for whenever you'd like your Christmas cactus to bloom.
History of Christmas Cactus Plants
The Christmas cactus plants you see today in plant stores and grocery stores around the holidays are actually a hybrid of two different species of schlumbergera (s. truncata and s.russelliana), first bred in England about 150 years ago. It became popular in 19th century, Victorian England to give these plants as holiday gifts, and the plant continues to grow in popularity to this day.
Cheerful Blooms Year After Year
Once you know the tricks to getting your Christmas cactus to bloom on time, and how to keep it blooming happily, you'll be rewarded with a flush of new blooms every winter. And since it's so easy to propagate, you'll have plenty of new plants to add to your collection or give as gifts.