Christmas Cactus

A Christmas cactus is a unique blooming succulent with long, draping stems that bloom with vibrant flowers. It belongs to Schlumbergera is a small genus of cacti and the family Cactaceae. This distinct winter plant originates from the tropical rainforests of Brazil, where it grows on trees or rocks in heavy shade. Most Christmas cacti now in cultivation are considered to be hybrids of the Thanksgiving, or crab, cactus (Schlumbergera truncata, formerly Epiphyllum truncatum) and S. russelliana. Each plant type is named for the holiday nearest its blooming time. Christmas cacti are available in a wide array of colors including magenta, yellow, purple, white, pink, and orange.



Common names for these cacti generally refer to their flowering season. In the Northern Hemisphere, they are called Christmas cactus, Thanksgiving cactus, crab cactus and holiday cactus. In Brazil, the genus is referred to as Flor de Maio (May flower), reflecting the period in which they flower in the Southern Hemisphere. Most of the popular houseplants are cultivars of Schlumbergera, rather than species, with flowers in white, pink, yellow, orange, red or purple. The Easter cactus or Whitsun cactus, until recently placed in the genus Hatiora, is also called a holiday cactus and has flowers in red, orange, pink and white.


Table of Contents


Height(Avg)

6 - 12 inches


Width-Circumference (Avg)

12 - 24 inches


Approximate pH

5.5 - 6.2


Types of Christmas Cactus


Schlumbergera x buckleyi is a hybrid plant often called by other names such as Thanksgiving, Christmas, or Easter cactus. They look alike but bloom at different times and have slight differences in the shape of their leaves.


Because of their subtle differences, they are often mislabeled in garden centers.

  • Thanksgiving cactus (Schlumbergera truncata): This plant blooms close to the end of November with showy flower colors that are either red, pink, peach, purple, orange, or white. It has very pointed and claw-shaped projections on the edges of its leaves.


  • Christmas cactus (Schlumbergera russelliana): Often bred with S. truncata to form Schlumbergera x buckleyi, this species blooms close to the end of December with magenta and white flowers. It has flattened leaf segments that are rounded with a few notches around the edges.


  • Easter cactus (Rhipsalidopsis gaetneri): This variety starts to reveal star-shaped flower buds in February and flowers from March through May. It has tiny bristles on the edges of its rounded leaf segments.


Color Varieties:


You can find holiday cacti in red, white, yellow, orange, pink, and purple. Here is an explanation of the different color varieties.


Red



The red against the green creates a showy appearance, perfect for the holiday season. The “Dark Marie” plant is an especially gorgeous plant with purple buds that bloom red and white. It is an early bloomer, much like the “Kris Kringle” plant, which has true red blossoms. Kris Kringle grows more upright compared to the others. The “Thor Carmen” plants are strong and grow fast, and bloom later.


Yellow and White



These flowers may have hints of other colors, like gold, in the petals. The “Thor Britt” has white flowers with pink stamens and pink in the center. The “White Christmas” has creamy white flowers that are small. The “Christmas Gold” has purple buds, and when it blooms, the flowers are gold and have dark purple stamens and blush centers. Then the “Gold Charm” is a yellow variety and has large gold flowers. It is a more vigorously growing plant compared to the others.


Orange



Orange is a perfect color for fall, and luckily, many orange varieties bloom in October and November. The “Malindi” cactus has purple buds that turn into bright orange flowers. The “Xmas Fantasy” has more of a peachy color bloom with hints of purple. The stamens are also purple. The “Madslome” plant is similar to “Malindi,” except it has a slightly darker flower, and the center is creamy white. Another plant to consider is the “Peach Parfait,” which blooms a little later on in the season. The flowers are peach or orange, and they have purple stamens.


Purple and Pink



Most Christmas cacti varieties are pink and purple, and the colors range in hue from a very pale pink to the deepest dark purple. The variety, “Nicole” is a late bloomer, the flowers are lavender, and the centers are a creamy white. Then there is “Thor Rit,” which is a trailing variety and does best in a hanging basket. The flowers are large and bright pink. The “Dark Eva” plant is an early bloomer. The buds are dark purple and the flowers are white, and they have a beautiful lavender tip. Then “Thor Tina” is like “Thor Rit” in its trailing characteristics, but it is a late bloomer and the blossoms are pink.


Planting Christmas Cactus


Potting Christmas Cactus

  • When selecting a pot for a Christmas cactus, be sure to choose one that has a drainage hole in the bottom. This helps to keep the soil from getting too wet.

  • Christmas cacti grow well in most potting mixes that are formulated for succulents. The important thing is that your potting soil drains well.


Where to Put a Christmas Cactus

  • Plants should be kept in bright, indirect light. An east-facing window or a bright bathroom is ideal. Too much direct sunlight can bleach the sensitive leaves.

  • A daytime temperature of 70°F (21°C) and an evening temperature of 60-65°F (15-18°C) is preferred.

  • Christmas cacti prefer a more humid environment, which makes a bright bathroom or kitchen a good spot to keep them.

  • In the summer, Christmas cacti can be placed in a shady spot in the garden or in an unheated porch until temperatures get below 50°F (10°C). Keep them out of direct outdoor sunlight.


Growing Christmas Cactus


How to Grow Holiday Cactus From Seed


You can harvest cactus seeds from the pods (fruits) of the plant. If the pods are still green, wait until they turn red. The pod transformation usually happens in the fall. Extract the brownish-black seeds and wash the pulp away.

  1. Plant the seeds in moist sphagnum peat moss and vermiculite, loamy compost, or cactus mix. Press the seed into the soil without covering it or sprinkle a thin layer of vermiculite on top.

  2. Cover the pot with clear plastic wrap or enclose it in a clear plastic bag to increase humidity in the growing environment.

  3. Place the plant on a bright, but indirectly lit, window sill.

  4. Do not allow the growing medium to dry out. You can spray the soil surface with water every day, or you can safely water the plant from the bottom by placing the pot in a tray of water. The water should wick upwards through the drainage holes. Once the soil surface is moist, remove the plant from the water tray.

  5. Within two to three weeks, seedlings should emerge. Remove the plastic once you notice seedling growth.

  6. Transplant the seedlings into individual pots when they are large enough to handle.


How to Get Holiday Cactus to Bloom


Under the best conditions, plants bloom about 18 months after sowing from seed. Each flower will remain open for at least six days, and the plant should continue to bloom for four to six weeks. The holiday cactus colors are showy but the flowers are scentless. The best way to ensure that your holiday cactus remains in bloom throughout the winter is by removing the faded flowers or deadheading.


For your holiday cactus to bloom during the holiday season, you might need to force it into dormancy, then coax it out. Here's how:

  1. In mid-October, reduce watering (probably once every week or two). Only water when the soil feels dry about an inch below the surface. Stop fertilizing.

  2. Keep your holiday cactus cool between 50 to 55 degrees Fahrenheit and make sure to limit the amount of light it gets for about six to eight weeks.

  3. During the day, the plant can receive indirect light, but it needs 12 to 14 hours of total darkness at night. If the room is warmer than 55 degrees Fahrenheit, give your plant an extra couple of hours of darkness each day. If light can reach the plant anytime during its 12 hours of "night," cover the plant with a dark cloth.

  4. Once flower buds form, move the plant to a bright, draft-free window. Flowers should start opening within a couple of weeks.


Christmas Cactus Care


Taking care of a holiday cactus is a little trickier than most other desert-loving cacti that are drought resistant. The holiday cactus is a tropical rainforest native and needs regular water to remain healthy. The flattened leaves are stemmed segments that hang and drape from containers and hanging baskets. Flowers form at the ends of the stems—so the more stems your plant has, the more flowers it will have. Traditionally, the cactus blooms red, but it can produce flowers that are pink, white, magenta, or purple, or the less common colors of salmon, peach, and orange.


To encourage more stems, grow your holiday cactus as a hanging plant or place it where it has room to drape. You won't need to worry about touching thorny spikes as you do with other types of cacti.


Light


A holiday cactus likes sun or shade, but you have to take care not to give it too much of either one. Holiday cacti prefer partial shade or diffused light, although they are adaptable to other conditions. If you expose them to full sunlight, ensure it's during the winter months; too much sunlight in the spring and summer can cause the plant to become pale and yellow.


Soil


Soil is not an essential factor for the holiday cactus; it's adaptable to most soil conditions and grows naturally as an epiphyte in its native region. Yours can thrive in loamy, sandy, perlite, cactus mix, or general-purpose potting soil. To achieve optimal growth, it prefers a pH level between 5.5 and 6.2; peat moss is a helpful additive for a more acidic environment.


Water


Though it is a cactus, its tropical origins make this plant crave more water than most. Water the plant thoroughly, allowing excess water to run out through the drainage holes. Let the soil dry almost completely between waterings. You will know if the soil is too dry when the leaves start to pucker and shrivel.


During a hot, sunny summer, water the plant two to three times a week. If the plant is located in a sunny window during the winter, it might need water once a week. To check the moisture level, place your finger 2 inches into the soil; if it's dry to the touch, water thoroughly. If you keep the plant in a cooler location away from a window during the winter season, it might only need water once every two to three weeks.

Temperature and Humidity


The holiday cactus needs ample humidity, especially when grown in the dry conditions of heated homes during the winter. Either mist the plant or place a pebble tray filled with water beneath the pot to boost its humidity levels.


Temperature-wise, the holiday cactus is a bit picky. During its peak growth months (April to September), it prefers balmy temperatures between 70 and 80 degrees Fahrenheit. Once the buds are set, it requires low nighttime temperatures (between 55 and 65 degrees Fahrenheit) and at least 13 hours of darkness to form buds that will flower. Keep it away from heating vents, frequently-opened doors, and drafty windows; this plant does not like to be exposed to sudden drafts or temperature changes and it will drop its buds or flowers if it's unhappy.


Fertilizer


Feed your holiday cactus monthly with a half-strength, diluted water-soluble balanced fertilizer during the early spring and summer months. Once you've noticed the formation of flower buds—usually late summer or early fall—stop feeding. After the plant blooms, you can resume monthly feedings.


Pruning and Propagating Christmas Cactus


Pruning


Prune a holiday cactus right after it blooms, when it enters a new growth period extending its growth segments. Pruning will force the plant to branch out, and it will grow more of its distinctive stems. You can also prune safely from after bloom to late spring without harming the plant.


To prune a holiday cactus, give the stems a twist between one of the segments. You can also use a sharp, sterilized knife or scissors to remove segments. You can remove up to a third of the plant per year or, more conservatively, trim off one to two segments from the end of each stem.


Propagating Christmas Cactus


The best time to propagate a holiday cactus is one to two months after it's finished blooming. Avoid propagating it in the fall while it sets its buds and as it's actively flowering. Taking cuttings of holiday cactus, large or small, will help the original plant grow fuller and bushier, resulting in more blooms in the future. Holiday cactus is best propagated from stem cuttings.


To begin, prepare a 4- or 6-inch pot and fill it with a growing medium like a cactus mix, all-purpose potting soil, or a sandy/peat mix. Optionally, you can root your segment in a clear jar of filtered water before planting it.

  1. Use your clean hands or a sterile knife or scissors to cut sections of stems with three to five stem segments on each.

  2. Place the stem segment in a cool, dry place for two to four days until the cut end callouses (dries out) to protect the end from rotting.

  3. Push the cuttings about an inch deep in the lightly moistened soil. Three stems fit nicely into a 4-inch pot; five stems in a 6-inch pot. It should take two to three weeks for roots to form.

  4. Water the plant well. To create a humid environment and encourage rooting, cover the plants and container with a clear plastic bag secured with a rubber band. Remove the plastic bag once rooting has started.

  5. Let the soil dry out between waterings.

  6. Optionally, you can root the stems in water before planting them in the soil. Set the cut end in 1 to 2 inches of filtered water, then place the jar in a window with indirect light. After several weeks, the stems should have roots at least 1 or 2 inches long and are ready to plant in potting soil (see step 3).

  7. You want good rooting to occur before you repot the plant; wait at least eight to ten weeks before repotting to a permanent home. The best evidence of good rooting is new leaf or stem growth.


Repotting Christmas Cactus


Holiday cactus likes to be rootbound and does not have to be repotted often—every three to four years is sufficient, or when the plant starts looking ragged or you see a lot of roots growing out of the drainage holes. Frequent repotting can damage the plant and can cause it to stop blooming for a while.


Unlike other plants that are best repotted when they display new growth in spring, for holiday cactus, wait until blooming ends and the flowers have wilted in late winter or early spring. Never repot the plant while it is actively blooming.

Overwintering


Holiday cacti are not cold-hardy and do not tolerate frost. These tropical plants can remain outside in USDA hardiness zones 10 to 12 (certain parts of California, Florida, Hawaii, and Puerto Rico). They can handle nighttime lows in the 60s, but anything approaching freezing can kill the plant. Bring the plant indoors before the first frost and maintain drier soil. The colder temperatures should spur bud production. You should begin to see buds forming by October.


Pests and Plant Diseases


The most common pests that infect holiday cacti are fungus gnats, flower thrips, aphids, spider mites, and mealybugs. Do not overwater your plant; soggy soil is what most often attracts these pests. Insecticidal soap and horticultural oil are usually effective in controlling an outbreak. The tiny pests can also be removed by blotting them with an alcohol-soaked cotton ball. A holiday cactus might not survive a heavy infestation and might need to be discarded, especially if there are other plants nearby.


Fungal diseases are common when plants are overwatered. Avoid overwatering to prevent fungal infections. Fusarium and Phytophthora are two common holiday cactus fungi that can cause stem rot. Fusarium stem rot causes brown spots to form on the stem at the soil line. Phytophthora stem rot causes the stem to appear wet or water-soaked at the soil line. Phytophthora is deadly. A holiday cactus might rebound from the fusarium if caught early enough, but it's often hard to save. If the plant has overly wet soil, allow it to dry out, then apply a fungicide according to the package instructions.


Common Problems With Christmas Cactus


Holiday cacti are long-lived plants that are sensitive to temperature and humidity. They are hardy when kept above freezing temperatures; however, they will require ideal temperatures and conditions for lush flowering during the holidays.

Stunted Appearance or Growth Distortion


If you notice that your holiday cactus has stunted or distorted growth, inspect it closely for a mealybug infestation. Mealybugs look like tiny white cotton dots about 1/8 to 1/4 inches long. They move slowly and often appear first low on the leaf surface in the dark, warm, moist areas near the center stem of the cactus. The insects feed on plant sap and leave a sticky honeydew substance behind, which causes mold to form on the plant.


Yellowed, Spotted, or Wilting Leaves or Stems


If your plant has yellowing leaves or stems, leaf spotting, or plant wilting, inspect them closely for thrips. Thrips are an insect that looks like thin black slivers or tiny lobster-like insects. The leaf and stem damage is not caused directly by thrips but by a virus they commonly transmit, impatiens necrotic spot virus. Treat the thrip infestation with insecticidal soap or horticultural oil. The plant might rebound if you also remove it from its old container and into a sterilized container with fresh potting mix. Wilting can also be caused by too little light, insufficient water, or if the plant is rootbound. Correct those conditions and monitor closely for improvements.


Leaves Turning Red or Pink


If the leaves of your holiday cactus turn red or pink, it might either be receiving too much sun or too little water. If your plant is located in a window with direct sun, move it back to indirect light. If the soil is dried up to 1 inch deep, water it more frequently. The rule of thumb is to water a holiday cactus when the top of the soil feels dry.


Benefits of Christmas Cactus


It’s called a “cactus”, but thrives in cool temperatures. Christmas cacti need to be kept away from heat sources. Christmas cactus will blossom longer when exposed to only cool temperatures. For best results, put your Christmas cactus in a cool place -- away from heaters and fireplaces -- without frequent drafts. Big changes in temperature can cause the cactus blossoms to drop before they open. Optimal temperature for Christmas cacti is 68 degrees F.


Christmas cacti need light to bloom. Keeping your Christmas cactus plants in a sunny location indoors is the key to prolonged blooms. However, if you move them outside during the summer, you’ll have the most success with a partially shaded location, as too much direct light can burn the leaves.


Christmas cacti need their beauty sleep. Setting your Christmas cactus in a room where you never turn the lights on at night. In order for the flower buds to set, Christmas cacti need 14 hours or more of continuous darkness per day. However, after the flower buds have set, the plants can withstand light at night.


Unlike the other Christmas favorite, Poinsettia, Christmas cactus is not toxic to dogs and cats. Poinsettia is famously poisonous to dogs and cats. However, the ASPCA, reassures that if Fido or Fluffy nibbles on a Christmas cactus, she should not experience irritation or vomiting like she would from the sap of the Poinsettia.


Christmas cactus can live for 20 to 30 years. Can you imagine passing a living, flowering plant on to your children or grandchildren? Christmas cacti can live for 20- 30 years when properly cared for. If you provide long nights starting around October 1, you can force the Christmas cactus to bloom year after year. Cool night temperatures also encourage it to bloom.


Overwatering will kill Christmas cacti, but they like to be misted on a daily basis. An horticulturist recommends watering a Christmas cactus only when the soil is dry to the touch. Instead, gardening expert and radio host, suggests misting the leaves of the Christmas cactus daily, to maintain the desired level of humidity around the plant.


By the way, that Christmas cactus you are buying is probably not actually a Christmas cactus. Surprise! “Most commercial cultivars of holiday cactus are actually Schlumbergera truncata, commonly known as Thanksgiving cactus or Zygocactus. True Christmas cactus is an interspecific hybrid of Schlumbergera truncata and Schlumbergera russelliana that originated about 150 years ago in England. It's a common houseplant but not often grown commercially.”

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