Christmas cactus (Schlumbergera) is a popular Christmas holiday season houseplant. Of course, you can grow it throughout all seasons and it will bloom during winter. This cactus is native to the mountains of south-eastern Brazil. In its natural habitat, this tropical cactus grows on trees or rocks, typically in partial shades and in a high humidity environment.
Christmas cactus has other common names: crab cactus, holiday cactus, and Thanksgiving cactus. Brazilian name for the plant is Flor de Maio (May flower), because the cactus flowers during May in the Southern Hemisphere.
The stems of Christmas cacti are green and thin, resembling leaves. The pride and joy of this houseplant is its inflorescence, which can be in many different colors: white, yellow, pink, orange, purple, or red.
In this article, we will give you adequate information about growing a Christmas cactus! What soil to grow, how much to water, how much light should it get, and what climate it thrives in? These questions will be answered.
Types of Christmas Cactus
There are three main types of Christmas Cactus:
- Schlumbergera Truncata is one of the variations. Its stems are more horizontal and have more ragged sharp edges. Its pollen is yellow. In the Northern Hemisphere, it blooms around Thanksgiving, so common names for would be Thanksgiving cactus, claw cactus or grab cactus.
- Schlumbergera Buckleyi is the second type, with rounder stems, and more symmetrical teeth. Buckleyi cacti tend to droop down and flowers later than Truncata, around Christmas time.
- Schlumbergera gaertneri or the Easter cactus has the roundest edges of the stem. It generally blooms in March and April.
Growing & Care
Growing all three types of Christmas cacti is similar. Compared to a desert cacti, these will need more water and less sunlight. They also aren’t as spiky as most of the desert cacti are. Let’s get right into it – how to grow and care for a beautiful and healthy Christmas cactus!
Soil & Fertilizer
The perfect soil for Christmas cactus is well-draining and slightly acidic (pH from 5.5 to 6.5), although it can be grown in most types of soil. To add acidity to your soil add peat moss or a few small fine pieces of pine bark mulch.
Feed Schlumbergera once a month to improve growth. Use water-soluble balanced fertilizer diluted to half strength during the growing season. When Christmas cactus starts to bloom, avoid fertilizing during this period.
Christmas cactus is quite fussy when it comes to climate. During the growing season, it thrives in temperatures 70 to 80 degrees Fahrenheit (21 to 27 degrees Celsius). During the blooming season, the temperatures should be lower, 55 to 65 Fahrenheit (13 to 18 degrees Celsius), which can be difficult to do in houses with central heating. It’s also fussy about temperature changes, so keep it away from ventilation and opened windows.
Since the Christmas cactus is native to a tropical rainforest, it prefers a high-humidity environment. Place it near a humidifier or spray the plant with water once in a while, when trying to grow it in low humidity conditions. Spraying the plant will also slightly lower the temperature of the plant. When water evaporates it requires energy.
Schlumbergera cacti grow best in partial shade, although during winter they will prefer full sun. The intense summer sun will scorch the plant, causing it to become pale. To make your holiday cactus bloom, it will need at least 13 hours of darkness.
Holiday cacti should be watered deeply once the top two inches of the soil is dry. During hot summers it might need watering three times a week, but generally once a week during summer is enough. During winter it might need water every two to three weeks. Christmas cactus needs more water when their leaves start to get wrinkly.
Potting and Repotting
Holiday cacti should be grown in clay or terracotta containers with drainage holes because they lose moisture through the container. You should repot the cacti about every four years, a good indicator of this is when the roots start growing out of the drainage holes. The best time to repot Christmas cactus would be just after blooming.
Christmas cacti will start branching out right after blooming, that’s the perfect time to prune them. Pruning will induce more stem growth. Do not prune away a lot of the plant after repotting, it might need some time to heal. Use sharp sterilized tools to prune, do not remove more than 1/3 of the stems. Cut right between the two stems.
Holiday cactus can be propagated from stem cuttings or grown from seed, although stem cuttings is easier and quicker. Here’s how to propagate Christmas cactus via stem cuttings:
- Use a sterilized and sharp tool to take a stem cutting
- Stem cutting should consist of 4 to 5 stem segments
- Dry the cuttings for four days, allowing them to heal
- Plant the cuttings one inch (2.5 cm) deep in slightly moist soil
- Water the plant deeply and cover with a plastic bag to retain moisture
- Remove the bag once new stems start growing
- Care for it as usual
How to Make a Christmas Cactus Bloom
The most beautiful part of this houseplant is its flowers, so you are probably wondering how to make it bloom. The flowers of the holiday cactus are very beautiful but without a fragrance. Once the plant starts blooming you should deadhead the flowers or remove flowers that are expiring to keep the plant blooming. Here’s how to make it bloom:
- Reduce watering in spring, once per week or even once every other week
- Stop fertilizing and keep the cactus in a cool (50 to 60 degrees Fahrenheit, 10 to 15 degrees Celsius) and dark place for two months.
- During the day it can receive light, but no more than 6-8 hours of indirect light.
- Once flowers start appearing, move them to a bright spot, or use artificial growing lights.
Christmas cacti can be affected by a lot of different pests: aphids, thrips, fungus gnats, mealybugs, and spider mites. The most effective method against all these pests would be applying neem oil. You can also try applying 70 %rubbing alcohol on the stems, but it might hurt the plant when applying too much.
Holiday cacti are quite sturdy when it comes to diseases, only some fungal diseases may affect the plant. These diseases mostly appear when you have overwatered the plant, when you notice rotting repot the plant to dry soil to save it.
Common Mistakes and Solutions
Christmas cacti are not very tolerant of mistakes. We have brought out the most common mistakes and solutions to these problems to help you grow a healthy Christmas cactus.
#1 Limp or Wilting Leaves
I bet some of you have wondered; why are the leaves on my Christmas cactus limp? It is usually due to lack of water, overwatering or too much sunlight. Check your watering routine and the dryness of the soil. If the soil is soggy, do not water it for a while and if its dry, water it deeply and pour away excess water that comes out of the drainage hole.
#2 Stems Turning Red
Like the last problem, this can be caused by the same thing. Too much intense sun or lack of water will sometimes cause the Christmas cactus to get a red hue. Find a location with less sunlight and if the top of the soil is dry, water it deeply.
Holiday cacti are beautiful holiday-season houseplants, but we think they are terrific all year long! They are not very low-maintenance as houseplants, but the terrific large flowers during the winter holidays are very rewarding. Make sure to follow our guide to do it right!