While there aren’t too many plants that flower during the cold holiday seasons, the Christmas cactus is one plant that will! And the best part of all, with a little simple care and maintenance, you can keep your Christmas cactus beautiful for many years to come.
In fact, a Christmas cactus can live between 20 to even 50 years with proper care! In addition, they are also very easy to propagate to start additional plants.
However, unlike most cacti species, the Christmas cactus does not thrive in hot climates and environments. They are actually native to the tropical rainforests of Brazil and require regular watering. They can even benefit from additional humidity.
With their traditionally bright red blooms, Christmas cacti make beautiful displays next to your holiday poinsettia plants as well! The good thing is that they are really easy to maintain indoors with just a few simple tips!
Varieties of Holiday Cacti – Christmas Cactus Care
Along with the Christmas cactus, there are two other varieties of holiday cacti that look very similar and can often be mislabeled. The main difference between the three varieties is their blooming time and the shape of their leaves.
Easter cacti (Rhipsalidopsis gaetneri) bloom in the early spring. They feature rounded-edged leaf segments while the blooms are more of a starburst shape with pointy tips.
Thanksgiving cacti (Schlumgera truncata) bloom in the late fall, right around Thanksgiving time. The edges of their leaves are more claw-shaped and pointy.
Christmas cacti (Schlumgera bridgesti) have leaf edges that are more scalloped. Their blooms often come in red shades, but you can also find white, orange, pink, and even purple colors.
All of these tropical cacti require long periods of darkness in order to set blooms. The Thanksgiving and Christmas cacti need around 6 weeks of 14+ hours of darkness while the Easter cacti require more like 8-12 weeks of darkness to set blooms.
Both the Thanksgiving and Christmas cacti feature more tubular-like blooms. They are both capable of blooming a second time in the spring, but it doesn’t always occur. Easter cacti only bloom once per year.
Features of A Christmas Cactus
Christmas cacti grow segmented stems and feature flat leaves that grow around the stem. The blooms of the plant actually grow out from the ends of each stem. Thus, the more stems you have on your Christmas cactus plant, the more blooms you will have.
The stems of a Christmas cactus do not grow up but rather prefer to hang down and drape over the sides of containers. Therefore, they are best placed in a location that allows draping as the plant grows.
Their blooms often come in shades of red (perfect for the holiday season), but you can also find white, orange, pink, and even purple colors.
How To Plant, Grow, And Maintain A Christmas Cactus
Requirements For The Christmas Cactus
These festive plants will grow in about any potting soil medium as long as it is well draining. A potting mix that is made specifically for succulents works perfectly. The most important part is that your container features several draining holes to allow excess moisture to drain out.
Keep the Christmas cactus in a location where it can receive indirect sunlight. Avoid direct sunlight since that can burn the foliage. Also, make sure to avoid locations with fluctuating temperatures or drafts.
Getting Your Christmas Cactus To Bloom – Christmas Cactus Care
In order to have better success getting your Christmas cactus to bloom in time for the holidays, place your cactus in a cool location about 10 weeks before Christmas. Keep the temperatures between 50-55º Fahrenheit (10-13º Celsius) for best results.
In addition, make sure the plant gets 14+ hours of complete darkness during this time. You may need to cover the plant if this cannot be achieved. Indirect sunlight is fine during the day. Water as usual during this time (see below).
Then, a couple of weeks before Christmas, bring the cactus into a location that has daytime temperatures around 65-70º Fahrenheit (15-24º Celsius) and nighttime temperatures about 5º lower. You will start to see buds forming at the end of the stems. The blooms should start to open just in time for the holidays!
Christmas cacti actively bloom around 4 to 6 weeks. Each of the blooms will stay open for around a week. Even though the blooms are beautiful, they do not produce an odor.
Long-Term Care – How To Grow And Maintain A Christmas Cactus
During the cooler fall and winter months, the Christmas cactus should be kept indoors where it can get plenty of indirect light.
Once spring and summer months arrive, you can choose to move the cactus outdoors to a shady location such as a back porch or patio. Just take care that it doesn’t get direct sunlight. Also, make sure to move it back indoors if there is any threat of colder weather in the forecast. Never leave the plant in an area where temperatures go below 50º Fahrenheit (10º Celsius).
Unlike most cacti plants, a Christmas caucus will need to be watered a bit more often. Allow the soil to dry out in between waterings and only water when the top ⅓ of the soil is dry. Poke your finger into the soil a few inches down. If it is dry to the touch, water thoroughly. Allow the excess water to drain out of the container completely.
You will likely only need to water once every week or so. Check your plant more often when the plant is actively flowering.
Christmas cactus plants also enjoy humid locations, so placing your planter on a tray of water and rocks may be beneficial. Just make sure the roots are not resting in the standing water.
A Christmas cactus will benefit from an occasional dose of fertilizer during the spring and summer months. Choose a liquid, all-purpose indoor fertilizer and not one made specifically for cactus plants or succulents. Fertilize once a month, but make sure to stop in the fall before blooming occurs.
Deadheading & Pruning
As the blooms start to die off, make sure to deadhead spent blooms. In addition to deadheading, the plant should also be pruned.
Once the Christmas cactus is completely done blooming, it is time to prune the plant. Simply cut the stems between segments with a sharp pruner or knife. A Hori Hori Garden Knife works great for this (affiliate link). You can also twist the stem as well for easy removal. (For more information on other great garden tools besides the Hori Hori Knife, check out our podcast: “8 Simple Garden Tools & Gadgets Every Gardener Should Own”.)
Only remove up to ⅓ of the plant each year. Each place where you cut will allow the plant to branch out, resulting in additional bloom locations.
Those cut pieces of stem you got from pruning can be used to create brand new Christmas cacti plants. Place the cut pieces in a small container filled with the same type of potting mix you originally used. Keep the soil moist but not saturated.
After a few weeks, you should start to see new root growth. Once you see the root growth, go back to allowing the soil to dry in between watering. Don’t repot the new plant until it has sufficient root growth and has started to show signs of new foliage (usually after at least 10 weeks or so).
Forcing A Second Bloom
With proper care, you can sometimes get a Christmas cactus plant to be forced into a second bloom in later winter/early spring. To achieve this, move the plant to a cool garage or basement for 4-6 weeks. Make sure the plant gets 14+ hours of complete darkness during this time. Don’t be surprised though if it only blooms one time.
A Christmas cactus can easily drop buds or blooms if it is exposed to different types of “stress.” A lack of watering can cause blooms to fall off if the plant is allowed to dry out too much. In addition, fluctuating temperatures or drafts may also cause the plant to drop blooms. Lastly, changes in lighting can also result in dropped blooms.
The good news is that even if the Christmas cactus drops buds this growing season, it should still produce new buds the following year.
Pests & Issues
Aside from bloom drops, one of the main issues with potted Christmas cactus plants is root rot. Always make sure to drain any excess water so the roots are never sitting in standing water.
As for pests, mealy bugs, aphids, and spider mites are the main issues. Overly wet soil is known to attract these bugs, so another bonus to keeping the cactus properly watered is avoiding these pests.
Repotting Christmas Cactus Plants
You should only need to repot your Christmas cactus every few years. These cacti actually prefer a more root-bound structure. Only repot the plants once they are completely done blooming (in the early spring or summer). Choose a new container that is only a few inches larger than the one it was previously in.
With just a little bit of simple care and maintenance, you can enjoy the beauty of a blooming Christmas cactus for many, many years to come!
Feel free to download, print out, or save our Christmas Cactus At-A-Glance sheet. It is sized for half letter printing but can be scaled if needed.