The Christmas cactus, hailing from Brazil, is a beautiful plant that blooms a light red and white flower. Also known as the Schlumbergera, its beautiful color scheme makes it the perfect natural addition to your holiday season decorations. However, these plants need to be purchased and cared for long before Christmas Eve.
What are the most important things to remember when caring for your Christmas cactus?
- Cooler temperatures
- Humidity is good, but too much watering is bad
- Balance daylight and nighttime
- Special fertilizer only used at the right time
- Prune yearly
- Monitor for and remove insects
- Displaying area is different from growing area
Let’s explain those steps in more detail and then discuss your additional options.
Steps to Prepare Your Christmas Cactus for the Holiday Season
Just keep in mind as you go through these points that a plant is a living thing, not a product out of a factory. As such, do not be afraid to tinker with these instructions ever so slightly. Christmas cacti especially are used to a little disruption. Use your judgement and a little tender loving care to keep your plant happy and satisfied.
The Christmas cactus is native to the jungles in Brazil, where it grows adjacent to larger trees and under their canopies. As such, they like average temperatures ranging from 65 degrees to 75 degrees. They can be outside in the summer, but keep them under some sort of balcony roof or awning to avoid direct sunlight. Prolonged sunlight can burn them, causing a yellowing color and preventing bloom later in the year.
To time a proper bloom exactly right, your Christmas cactus will need to be placed in cooler temperatures for about 12 hours a day starting in late September to early October. That way they will start to bloom 8 to 10 weeks later in early December. If you live in a temperate climate, leaving your plant outside should work just fine as long as you monitor weather fluctuations. Too cold and it will develop frost, which will kill the plant.
On the other hand, if a hot day pops up in October, bring it inside into the air conditioning. In general, 55 to 60 degrees should do the trick. If you live in a desert or tropical climate, place your Christmas cactus in your basement or at least a closed off closet during this time.
Humidity vs Watering
Here is where it becomes tricky. The Christmas cactus is technically not a cactus, as it does not grow in the desert. Being from the tropics, this plant likes it humid. However, liking humidity does not mean that it likes being watered all the time. In fact, the Christmas cactus name in derived from the fact that it rarely likes to actually be watered. If this plant were a guy at a Florida resort in July, he would sit under an umbrella outside by the pool all day but never jump in the water.
How do you keep something humid without watering it? It is easier than you might think. If you already live in a humid climate, putting the plant outside is obviously the best thing you can do. If not, follow these steps:
- Find a small, shallow tray just larger than the bottom of cactus’s pot. A plate is too shallow, but something like a frisbee or garden stone with ridges will do fine.
- Fill it up with small stones, enough so that they sit just above the ridge.
- Fill that tray with water.
- Place the Christmas cactus on top of the rocks.
By using this method, you are not watering the plant. However, the water in the tray will very slowly evaporate through the pot and around it past the leaves, keeping the plant reasonably humid. Check on the water every so often and fill up the tray again as necessary.
That being said, it is not like a Christmas cactus never wants water. Check on it once a week to see if there is any significant drying out in the soil or yellowing in the leaves. It will generally need water once every 1 to three weeks. Still a lot less often then your common florist bouquet.
It is also important to adjust watering patterns depending on the season. Once a week or so is great in the Spring and Summer. But the Christmas cactus will only bloom if it feels like it needs to. Frankly, if it feels like it is dying needs to reproduce. In the fall, you definitely want to dial it back to 2 or 3 weeks.
Daylight and Nighttime
Outside of blooming preparation, a Christmas cactus’s relationship with sunlight is mostly average. They can sit outside or in the windowsill (temperature permitting). Again, just avoid too much direct sunlight. If you need to choose though, err on the side of too much sunlight over not enough.
Blooming preparation, starting in September, is when it becomes more complicated. Along with cooler temperatures, the Christmas cactus also needs 12 to 14 hours a day of complete darkness. The plant will attempt to look for more sunlight somewhere, hence it will start to bloom. Make sure it receives a healthy amount of sunlight during the day, and then at night move it into complete darkness. Artificial light still counts as light, unfortunately. Try one of these options to make sure it gets adequate amount of “sleep”:
- Put it in your basement
- Place it delicately in a closed closet or room by itself
- If it is too big to move from outside, put a tarp or thick sheet completely over the top of it so that all leaves are covered.
- Later in the season, when nighttime lasts a lot longer, simply placing it in your backyard (away from car lights and such) works well. Again, if you are keeping it outside, beware of frost.
We already know how picky the Christmas cactus is with water. What about fertilizer? That is quite a different story. As long as it is used correctly, fertilizer is a beneficial and necessary ingredient to help your plant do well. But keep it out of the bloom season, as this could be detrimental by interfering with the timing of that process.
During the spring and summer, it is recommended to add fertilizer to your Christmas cactus about once a month. This time of the year is the growing season, so any help is beneficial. In fact, fertilizer will even help you better align your plant’s annual overall rhythm of growth and bloom. Use one with a high rating on its middle number, like 8. Try one of these fertilizers:
- Tiger Bloom: This simply works for a fair price and is recommended by top horticulturists. Particularly useful in promoting budding in the Fall
- Miracle-Gro: You probably already know Miracle-Gro from your lawn fertilizer. Well they specialize in houseplants too. It is not specialized to cacti specifically, but it works.
- Jacks Classic: Cheaper than the rest but will still keep those leaves looking green and the rest of the plant strong throughout the year.
You really do not need to be cutting back your Christmas cactus, even during all-out growth season. This could be even worse during budding season because you will be losing tiny buds that are still not completely visible. Remember, this plant is used to growing in treacherous conditions. It is used to finding whatever space it needs to survive. Not pruning will never affect the health of your plant.
However, Christmas cacti can live up to 30 years, meaning they will eventually become too large. Or they may even start growing uneven or otherwise just become unsightly in some way. If you need to prune your Christmas cactus, it is rather easy: just cut on the skinny piece in between two leaf segments. The plant practically marks it for you.
You can cut up to one third off of your Christmas cactus without disturbing its health or growth rate. Also, do not overdo it: you should only be pruning it roughly once a year. After you prune, save a handful of leaf segments! More on that later.
Watch for Bugs
Let’s face it. After everything you have read so far, especially concerning darkness and lack of watering, it sure is tempting to just put your Christmas cactus in your spare bedroom and shut the door. See you in two weeks. Not a good idea. You should at least go in once a day and check on your plant. It could need more water in its humidity tray. But most importantly, you also need to watch for bugs.
Insects could be infesting their way inside the pot without you even noticing. If this happens, your dream of a beautiful Christmas cactus adorning your living room by the fireplace could die in September. Look out for:
- Root mealybugs
- Flower thrips
- Fungus gnats
If you see any of these, prune off the infected area and discard it so it hopefully does not infect the rest of the plant. Then use an insecticide that is safe on plants. Be sure to avoid overwatering because that is usually the main attractor of bugs. Also keep your Christmas cactus in a thinner, breathable pot so it dries faster.
So far, we have almost exclusively discussed placing your Christmas cactus in cold dark rooms or on balconies. The problem is we do not usually roast marshmallows and open presents in a closet. You are obviously going to have to move your plant into a prominent spot in your living room. During the holiday season, it is time for this beautiful plant to shine. Here are some tips on displaying your Christmas cactus:
- Unlike its holiday plant colleague, the poinsettia, it is not poisonous to cats and dogs. No worries there.
- Keep it up on an end table though so your pets do not poke at its semi sharp edges. You do not want the kids pulling apart something that took a year to bloom either.
- If there is less sunshine in your living room, just try to keep it as close to the window as you can. Do not forget that more darkness is better this time of year anyway.
- Avoid the fireplace. Smoke is bad for the plant. And obviously fire is not great either.
If your Christmas cactus is in its twenties and has begun to see better days, it might be time to get a new one. Luckily for you, there is no need to buy a new one because you can make one yourself! Grab those leaf segments from before and follow these steps:
- Leave the segments out on a dry surface for a few days so that they dry and the tips heal
- Assemble a new pot (6 inches in diameter is fine for a now) filled with soil mix. This soil is purposely coarse to allow for plenty of aeration.
- Place three or four leaves in the soil for their old cut stems down. They should all be buried about halfway. Keep a handful to the side in case the leaves in the pot do not take.
- Follow normal care. Pay extra attention to humidity.
- In about two weeks, growth will occur. Together they will have a brand-new root system.
Where to Buy Your Christmas Cactus
If you do not have a Christmas cactus at all and do not have a way of acquiring a few leaves, you will need to buy one. Before you do, buyer beware: a lot of “holiday cacti” are not actually Christmas cacti. Plenty of companies try to sell the Thanksgiving cactus, which looks similar and is a lot easier to grow, and pretend it is a Christmas cactus. Further troubling is that some people try to sell imitation plants in the place of all holiday cacti! Make sure you are buying from a reputable source like one of the following.
We have come a long way from buying our favorite books on Amazon. Believe it or not, Amazon has a huge selection of live plants. The Christmas cactus is no exception. There are a few varieties to choose from, all of which are typically fulfilled locally. If they cannot be fulfilled locally, they are shipped with careful climate-controlled means. Be careful though, as that will probably increase shipping charges. Here are a few ideas:
- Hirt’s Gardens– $15 is not bad for a plant ready to go and already in a 4 inch pot
- American Plant Exchange– This is really a larger co-op network of sellers who bid together for simplified pricing. Comes in a larger pot.
- JM Bamboo– Similar to the Hirt’s Gardens one but better quality and bigger price
Your Hardware Store
You may know your local hardware store as just a good place to buy your favorite gardening tools. While that is true, plenty of them have branched out into floral selections as well. Home Depot and Lowes in particular have vary large gardening sections, often located outdoors, which feature everything you will need to start growing your plant. And of course, the plant itself. Check in to your local store usually around August or September, when the holiday decorations start moving in, and that will typically be when they will have the Christmas cactus in stock. That would be the perfect time to pick it up for your first year, as that is the start of blooming season.
The most convenient option for many of us is just going to our local florist. Even though they will have a much larger flower selection, they still might not have the Christmas cactus in stock before September. Many people believe certain things should be bought in person, not online, so you can examine quality before you buy. And when it comes to quality, nothing beats buying from your local florist and bringing the plant home that same day.
Cacti for Other Holidays
There are a couple cacti out there for other holidays besides Christmas. There is the Thanksgiving cactus, as previously mentioned, and also the Easter cactus. They are in the family as the Christmas cactus, but have slightly different properties and care practices. Let’s go through those in case you are thinking of keeping the cactus trend going year-round. It is also a good idea to know these things, so you are not bamboozled on your next Christmas cactus purchase.
The Thanksgiving cactus is often used as an imitation of Christmas cactus. It is similar in color and appearance. It also is more abundant and therefore cheaper to sell at a markup. However, you will be able to tell the difference.
The Thanksgiving cactus has leaves that are pink and white, not red and white. If you are buying the plant when it has already budded, that will be a dead giveaway. If not, take a look at the leaves. The Thanksgiving cactus leaf has hooked edges, almost like lobster claws. A Christmas cactus should have smaller and smoother edges.
In addition, pay careful attention to the directions. When they tell you to start the budding process in late July or early August, you will know something is up. These plants are designed to blossom a month before the Christmas cactus, in time for Thanksgiving. So naturally they need to start the budding process a month earlier.
The Easter cactus is a lot different. Although it comes from a similar area in brazil, it is prone to more of a forest environment than a nature one. Also, with its bright pink or even orange colors, there is no way you would get it confused with a Christmas cactus.
As the name suggests, the growth cycle is radically different too, which allows it to bloom in the Spring right around Easter. Caretaking for this plant is similar to the Christmas cactus, just moved later in the year. You will want to start the blooming period back in November if you can, since it might be too cold and too dark during the deep winter. Not enough sunlight at all means more time to get to full bloom. Watering and moisture stay the same. It should also go without saying that the Easter cactus should not be outside during the winter. You can bring outside in the early Spring, weather permitting.
Diseases and How to Avoid Them
Like humans, plants can also become ill. The Christmas cactus, unfortunately, is no exception. The diseases that commonly affect this plant are:
- Basal Stem Rot
- Botrytis Blight
- Impatiens Necrotic Spot Virus
1. Basal Stem Rot
Basal stem rot occurs when fungus builds up around the roots. This may not be outwardly noticeable since you will not see any fungus on the plant or the pot. However, the plant will start to grow slower than it should. If you have other Christmas cacti, it will clearly be smaller than them. It will also start to miss important benchmarks. Even, most critically, the start of blooming season.
How does this happen? Too much water. If you do not overwater, you do not have to worry about basal stem rot. But if it is already happening, you may need to consult an expert.
2. Botrytis Blight
On the other hand, Botrytis Blight is completely noticeable on your Christmas cactus. At first the leaves and flowers will wilt. Then a fuzzy blue fungus will grow. To prevent this, make sure you do not go overboard on the humidity. Keep a close eye on your cactus. If this begins to happen, immediately cut off any infected leaves.
3. Impatiens Necrotic Spot Virus
Like we mentioned before, you should be routinely inspecting for insects on or in your Christmas cactus. Insects, after all, do more than eat your plant. They also carry disease! One infection carried by insects that is perhaps the most detrimental to plants is called Impatiens Necrotic Spot Virus. The symptoms include:
- Leaves turning purple or off-color
- Stunted growth
- Spots on both the leaves and the flowers
Unfortunately, there is no easy cure to Impatiens Necrotic Spot Virus. Insecticide will not help because the damage is already done. Not to mention the virus usually dives deep into buds and inside stems. The best you can do is cut off the infected area and hope enough of the virus is removed.
4. Phytophthora Root Rot
Phytophthora Root Rot has symptoms very similar to the other diseases. That makes it really hard to diagnose to the untrained eye. Leaves turning yellow will be quite common. However, before you decide to start cutting off stems, cut into the them just a little bit. Take a look at the color. Reddish brown discoloration in the stem is the biggest indicator that the problem in your Christmas cactus is down below in the roots, not the leaves and stems.
Luckily, this problem is quite fixable. It usually occurs from the water not being able to drain properly. Try switching to a thinner pot that allows the soil and roots to dry out faster.
Other Holiday Plants
The Christmas cactus is not the only plant for the holidays. Consider purchases one of the following to fill out the décor of your holiday living room.
The poinsettia is the most famous of all Christmas plants with its appropriately green and red colors. Buy a couple of these and place them next to your Christmas cactus for an inspired look. Just make sure you keep them off the floor, as they are dangerous to eat for your dog or cat.
Like the Christmas cactus, take care not to over water your poinsettias either. Also, if you want to keep it for next year, place it in your windowsill and water only occasionally. Pruning can be done liberally, and fertilizer can be given every two weeks.
The cyclamen has a similar green and red color scheme. However, the bud is decidedly rounder and dainty, for a softer feel. It can also bloom for an impressive eight weeks, which well comfortably take you from right after Thanksgiving through New Year’s Day, if you time it right. They also handle colder temperatures a lot better. Do not put them outside on a frigid day, but you can leave a cyclamen on your balcony well into early December.
The Amaryllis is more of a flower than a full plant, but it is pretty nonetheless. These come in all red or all white. There are sometimes ones that produce both color flowers, made by planting both in the same pot of soil. The Amaryllis nicely fills up any leftover space on your holiday display and looks good adjacent to your Christmas cactus.
If you enjoyed the show, you do not have to toss this flower out after New Year’s. Although it may look dead, you can always store the bulb in a cool dark place and replant it next year.