The Christmas Cactus is not just for the holiday season. When it’s not wowing you with spectacular displays of color from bountiful blooms, it adds an intriguing interest to your indoor or outdoor plant displays with its lush foliage. Learn everything about the year-round care of Christmas Cactus and how to propagate this holiday treasure for sharing with family and friends.
Proper Christmas Cactus Care for Beautiful Blooms and Propagation
Like my grandmother, I have a hard time keeping any houseplant alive. Outdoors we can grow almost anything but bring it past the threshold and untimely death is in its future.
My husband tells every new plant I bring home, “I’m sorry she’s brought you here to die.” However, Granny knew about Christmas Cactus care and she taught me.
Granny’s Christmas Cactus was on a large plant stand with tendrils cascading over and touching the floor. Almost everyone in the area had a plant from hers. Generations of people have cuttings from her Christmas Cactus.
Although it’s called a cactus, the Christmas Cactus is decidedly different from true cacti. Instead of the high desert environment true cacti love, it prefers a tropical climate much like the orchid. Keeping it healthy and vibrant year-round requires special care, just like the poinsettia.
Light and Temperature for Christmas Cactus Care
The Christmas Cactus will thrive in direct, bright light but not in exposure to direct sun. To keep it indoors year-round, place it near a window where it will receive plenty of indirect light. A south-facing window works great.
You can keep it outdoors, but be sure to keep it in the shade. Granny kept hers under the big oak in the front yard. Exposing the Christmas cactus to high temps and direct sunlight will stunt its growth and cause its foliage to burn
Similar to the poinsettia plant, avoid placing the Christmas Cactus in high-traffic areas where they may be bruised. They also do not like being kept in drafty locations where they are exposed to radical temperature changes or near heat sources like vents or heaters.
If you keep your cactus in a relatively dry environment, provide a source of humidity for it. This can be done by simply placing a shallow pan of water under the plant stand or near the plant.
I prefer to put a watering tray filled with gravel under the plant and fill the tray about half full of water. Evaporation will create the perfect 50-60% humidity the plant loves.
Proper Watering of Your Christmas Cactus
One of the most important things to know about Christmas Cactus care is proper watering. They don’t like dry soil and need to be watered regularly.
Water at the base of the plant, not over the green tendrils. You can mist the tendrils occasionally, but don’t water them.
The watering needs of the Christmas Cactus are pretty particular. If it gets too dry, the overall plant health will suffer and the tendrils will fall off. Good drainage and the ability to water from the bottom should be considered when selecting a pot for your Christmas cacti.
Likewise, even though it likes to be moist, excess water can kill it. Overwatering kills the plant much faster than underwatering.
The balance is delicate but don’t be discouraged, you can stay on top of it by simply checking the top inch of soil. If it is dry water it. If it is moist, check again in a couple of days.
During your dry season or if you live in a dry climate, check the plant every few days. If you live in a humid climate, cool climate, or keep your plant indoors, you should only have water once a week. You should check on it like we already talked about
When cool temperatures move in for the fall and winter, you’ll water less often to encourage your holiday cacti to start blooming. But we’ll talk about this in just a bit.
NOTE: You will Stop watering your Christmas Cactus the first of October in preparation for blooming. You’ll see why when we talk about blooming.
Fertilizing and Soil for Christmas Cactus
For the best Christmas Cactus care, I recommend using quality cacti potting medium like you would for succulent plants. Since potting mix isn’t revitalized like outside soil, you’ll need to offer your Christmas Cactus a fertilizer specifically designed for blooming plants.
Use a good water-soluble 20-10-20 or 20-20-20 fertilizer with trace elements. The trace elements are important for a healthy plant because the Christmas Cactus has higher magnesium requirements. Your garden centers will be helpful if you’re in doubt.
Avoid health problems by lightly fertilizing the Christmas Cactus at least twice a year, preferably 3-4 times a year. Because the joints of the Christmas Cactus are fragile, this is the first place health issues will show themselves. The joints will start falling apart.
The Christmas Cactus likes a tight root system so only re-pot it every few years as needed.
NOTE: Stop fertilizing your Christmas Cactus in mid-October in preparation for blooming.
Christmas Cactus Care to Have Blooms for the Holidays
Flower buds on your Christmas Cactus are naturally triggered by the change of season from summer to fall. They will bloom for 4-6 weeks. However, you can control this response, so you will have beautiful buds and blooms for the holidays all the way through late winter.
There are at least three schools of thought on this process. One is using darkness alone; another is using temperature alone, and thirdly – the one I get the best results with, is a combination of darkness and temperature. I’m sharing this method with you, so you’ll have the information you need for either method you prefer of Christmas Cactus care for beautiful blooms.
When to Put Your Christmas Cactus in the Dark
6-8 weeks before you want your Christmas Cactus to bloom, place it in a completely dark room for 12 hours of darkness at a time. You’ll want the temperature to be around 60 degrees so an unheated closet that you don’t open often is ideal. I usually start this process around the end of September.
Be sure to never expose your plant to freezing temperatures, it will die.
Getting Your Christmas Cactus Ready For Growing Season
During the day, place your Christmas Cactus in a spot where it can be exposed to light for 12 hours. If you live in an area where there are fewer daylight hours, use a grow light to supplement. This 12 hours of darkness/12 hours of light schedule will ensure your Christmas Cactus is covered in color all through the holidays.
If you don’t have the time or inclination to be moving your plant in and out of dark and light, you can use grow lights or a 100w soft white fluorescent light bulb placed at a distance of 2 feet above the plant. This way you’ll only need to remember to turn the light on and off. Remember to keep the area unheated.
You stopped watering the first of October and fertilizing the mid-October. You’ve got the 12 hours of daylight and dark exposure in place. You need to keep the humidity levels up as we’ve already discussed, but don’t start watering again until November.
On November 1st, begin watering again, BUT only enough to keep the soil barely moist, not wet. Saturated roots will cause dropped tendrils, flowers, and buds all at once ending your blooming season.
What if I See Flower Buds Before I Want Them?
If you see flower buds forming before you want them to, decrease the temperature and increase the number of dark hours to slow them down.
When you’re ready for the blooming party, increase the temperature and indirect sunlight exposure and the plant will ramp up the process.
Once you begin to see flower buds forming, you can return to normal Christmas Cactus care. Gradually increasing the number of light exposure hours and the amount of water will make this transition easier on your plants.
I increase the daylight exposure by 1 hour a day when I see the tips of buds forming. When the dark hours are down to 8, you can put the Christmas Cactus where you want it to be displayed for the holiday show.
Why Your Christmas Cactus Drop Its Buds
Dropped buds are disappointing. It’s happened to me more than once. Remember, I’m challenged with indoor plants at best. It’s so frustrating! As I said, the Christmas Cactus can be fragile and tookie about its care.
There are a few reasons for dropped buds.
- Not enough light exposure
- Low humidity levels
- Or any combination of these
If your Christmas Cactus drops its buds and you’re not sure what you’ve done wrong, try these things to see if they help.
- Decrease the amount of water and add just a little fertilizer to the plant
- Increase the light exposure hours
- Increase the humidity level
One or all of these should solve the issue. Hopefully, you catch it early enough and the plant doesn’t die. I have experience with this dreadful dilemma.
How to Prune a Christmas Cactus
After your Christmas Cactus plant has performed its breathtaking show of beautiful blooms for two to three months, it deserves a rest. When the last flowers fade and fall away, stop watering your Christmas Cactus. This will probably be in early spring or just before.
One month after you put it to rest, it’s time to prune your Christmas Cacti. This isn’t difficult and won’t harm your plant. From each stem, snap off a few y-shaped stem segments at least three segments long. This will actually encourage new growth.
Don’t throw those cuttings away.
How to Propagate Christmas Cactus
The Christmas Cactus is a star in the propagating world in the right conditions. It’s easy to share your plant and create traditions by giving starts from leaf segments to friends and family. I had a work acquaintance once who shared a beautiful story with me.
Her grandmother had died and she was blessed to be given her Christmas Cactus. Her great-grandmother had propagated it from her own Christmas Cactus as a gift to my friend’s grandmother. All of her aunts had a start from the grandmother’s plant so they wanted her to have the treasured Christmas Cactus.
On their first Christmas without her grandmother, she had started and brought to bloom a cactus for each of her cousins, cousins-in-law, and her dearest friends. They were all thrilled with the thoughtful gift. She always attaches a history of the plant and instructions on Christmas Cactus care.
Isn’t that a beautiful story?
You can do it too.
- Use the Christmas Cactus cuttings you pruned or snap off more segments to have as many new plants as want.
- Allow the stem cuttings to dry for several hours in a cool room to harden off before planting it.
- Start your transplants in small pots, a 3” pot works well. The clean pot should have a drainage hole. If possible, use the same type of soil the mother plant was potted in. If it’s possible, add a little of the mother plant’s soil to the pot. Some people say it helps prevent soil shock but I don’t have personal experience to say if this is true or not.
- While your plants are hardening off, fill your pots with soil.
- Push each segment deep enough into the soil to cover one-half of the first segment.
- Give it a little water just to moisten the soil. You can avoid root rot by providing excellent drainage.
Your new transplants should be treated like your mature Christmas Cactus. In 4 to 6 weeks, the transplant should have a strong root system developed.
When you see new growth, you’ll know you have succeeded.
Once your baby Christmas Cactus has produced one new segment, lightly fertilized it. I use about 1/3 the amount I use on a mature plant.
It should be fine in the 3” pot for 2-3 years but if you notice it looking unhealthy, you may need to re-pot it sooner. Keeping it lightly fertilized will prevent soil depletion until it’s time for re-potting.
How to Repot a Christmas Cactus
Most Christmas Cactus growers recommend repotting in late Spring. Their reason is this is the dormant time for them so it’s not trying to put on new growth or bloom.
Re-pot as you would most any plant using fresh, live soil. If you don’t make your own potting soil, be sure to purchase quality cacti soil for the best Christmas Cactus care.
Remember, the Christmas Cactus likes a tight root system so put your plant in a pot that’s just right for it, not in a larger container.
I’m as careful as I can be when re-potting, but I always have broken tendrils. You can usually re-pot any segment that breaks off unless they are too bruised or smashed to make it.
Christmas Cactus vs. Thanksgiving Cactus and Easter Cactus
The Thanksgiving Cactus, Christmas Cactus, and Easter Cactus have only subtle differences and are often confused. They’re often even sold as one another because it’s hard to distinguish them for most people.
While both can be found throughout America’s homes during the holidays there are differences. The Thanksgiving Cactus’ stem is toothy with two to four pointed teeth. The Christmas Cacti, on the other hand, flaunts smooth edges around its scalloped stem segments – much like a Christmas tree decoration!
The stems of the Christmas Cactus hang like pendants, while the stems of the Thanksgiving Cactus are arched from upright stems. The difference in the stem structure is the best and most accurate way to tell the difference.
The Easter Cactus has round stem segments that are slightly smaller and more subtle than Christmas and Thanksgiving Cacti.
Fortunately, the care of all three holiday cacti is the same. So no matter which you wind up with, you know how to take care of it.
Christmas Cactus care is a little more precise than many other plants. However, the challenge makes success all the more treasurable to me!
With a little care, your Christmas Cactus, Thanksgiving Cactus, or Easter Cactus could be around to brighten the holiday time of year for many generations to come.
You can use these same tips and how-tos for your Thanksgiving and Easter Cacti.
Who knows where and with whom it will be shared? Just imagine! Do you have tips on Christmas Cactus care, especially any re-potting tips?