How To Grow and Care For Your Christmas Cactus - Backyard Boss
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How To Grow and Care For Your Christmas Cactus

Christmas cactus (Schlumbergera bridgesii) is a natural choice for decorating your home during the festive season. Despite the Noel nomenclature, however, you might end up with a Thanksgiving cactus (Schlumbergera truncate) during the holidays. One telling difference is the look of the edges on the flattened stems, known as phylloclades. On a Christmas cactus, the edges are scalloped or less pronounced, while those on the Thanksgiving type are more jagged or claw-like.

Learn how to grow and care for your Christmas cactus and revel in its beauty and interesting silhouettes all year long.

Getting Started

Christmas Cactus Houseplant Alternatives to Poinsettias
Image credit: spablab via Openverse

While you can grow Christmas cacti from seeds, starting with a plant from a garden center is much easier. Choose one already in breathable pots — such as terracotta or clay — with drainage holes.

Even though Christmas cacti are native to the Amazon rainforest, they are epiphytes, meaning they don’t naturally grow on soil but on other plants. They grow high in trees where their roots can dry out each day. Root rot is a common cause of death for these houseplants, so good drainage is essential.

If you purchase your plant in fall or winter in a plastic pot, wait until late winter or early spring — after blooming has ended — to repot it into a terracotta or clay pot.

The best potting soil for a Christmas cactus contains a lot of organic matter, such as compost and peat. Premade potting mixes for succulents are also great options. A pH between 5.5 and 6.2 produces vigorous growth and plenty of blooms.

Seasonal Care for Your Cactus

Christmas cactus (Schlumbergera) in pot on the windowsill
Image credits: Nadezhda Nesterova via Shutterstock

One of the biggest reasons to grow a Christmas cactus is to enjoy those seasonal blooms in colors such as pink, lilac, red, orange, gold, cream, or white. However, a lack of flowers during the holidays is a common complaint about these plants.

The plant needs short days (or longer nights) and cooler nighttime temperatures to promote blossoming. Once you bring your Christmas cactus home, keep it in a cool, dark area, such as a basement, for 12 to 14 hours daily for at least six weeks.

Leaving the plant outdoors until just before the first frost can also spur blooming.

Watering

Closeup of Houseplant schlumbergera with pink flowers, parent of Christmas cactus or Thanksgiving cactus, blooms luxuriantly in December. Floriculture of a bright Decembrist plant with winter flower
Image credits: James Jiao via Shutterstock

Ensuring that your Christmas cactus does not become waterlogged is a top priority. The general rule is to allow the plant to dry out between watering. However, once buds develop, the soil should be kept a bit moist to prevent bud abscission or detachment.

To check if the plant needs watering, stick your finger into the soil about 1 to 2 inches deep. Newbies growing Christmas cactus plants might find that a soil moisture meter provides sound guidance and peace of mind.

Pro Tip: Water the plant over a sink, allowing the excess water to drain from the pot.

Lighting Your Christmas Cactus

Image credits: Sabine via Pixabay

When not sequestered in a dark, cozy space for 12 to 14 hours to promote blooming, a Christmas cactus still needs bright light during winter.

Relocate it near a window or glass door — without any drafts — that gets filtered sunlight for a few hours each day. The temperature in your chosen location should be between 65 and 70 degrees Fahrenheit during the daytime and 55 to 65 degrees in the evenings.

If the Christmas cactus leaves turn pale green, it is getting too much sun. A reddish color can also signify too much sun, although it can also be a sign of a lack of phosphorus. Once buds appear, keep the plant in that sunny spot with ideal temperatures.

Fertilizing

Woman pours liquid mineral fertilizer, in watering can with water. Cultivation and caring for indoor potted plants. Hobbies and leisure, home gardening, houseplant, urban jungle in apartment
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Give your Christmas cactus a monthly feeding when new growth starts in winter. It needs a half measure of water-soluble 20-10-20 or 20-20-20 fertilizer that contains trace elements, including magnesium, which these plants crave.

Fertilizing can cause salts to build up in the soil of your potted Christmas cactus, leading to problems such as root damage, pests, and disease. Carefully scrape off built-up salts on the top of the soil.

Every four months, leach the soil. Over a sink, slowly pour an amount of water about twice the volume of the pot through the soil. Once the pot is full of water, wait until it drains out and repeat the process. Alternatively, you can change the soil in the pot.

Pruning

Pruning shears
Image credits: Willfried Wende via Pixabay

Once your Christmas cactus has flowered, prune the plant to promote more branching. Typically, there will be one to two new cladophylls — or branch sections — at the site where you cut.

To prune the plant, use a sterilized sharp knife or pruner to cut where some cladophylls join. You can use these cuttings to propagate your Christmas cactus or add them to your compost.

Keeping a Christmas Cactus Healthy

Flowering Christmas cactus. Bright pink flowers. Young plant.
Image credits: Kathy D. Reasor via Shutterstock

Christmas cactus houseplants can be vulnerable to aphids, fungus gnats, mealybugs, red spider mites, and scale. Houseplant insecticides can help eradicate these pests. You can also wipe the plant with alcohol to kill them.

Some diseases, such as Drechslera cladophyll rot and Fusarium cladophyll rot, cause even more significant threats to your Christmas cactus. Watch for symptoms such as sections of the plant rotting or dying, blackened, circular sunken lesions, brown spots, and black, slimy lesions.

Avoiding overwatering — including watering from the bottom — helps to prevent these diseases. If plants do become infected, destroy them. Repot your Christmas cactus every three or four years.

Year-Round Care for Christmas Cactus

Close up christmas cactus
Image credits: PollyDot via Pixabay

This succulent can continue to thrive in its pot outdoors in summer. Place it in an area with partial to full shade. Generally, it needs watering two to three times weekly and monthly fertilizing. In August, reduce both water and fertilizer to prepare it for budding.

In September, prepare to bring the plant indoors. Check it for any signs of pests or diseases first. Use a spray bottle with water or an insecticide to eliminate any pests.

Christmas Cactus Is A Gift Worth Giving

A Christmas cactus can be a bit finicky to grow and care for at first. But with these tips, you can help this super succulent endure for up to 100 years, making them great family heirlooms.

Got some Christmas cactus care tips? Share them in the comments below!

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