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What Causes Christmas Cactus (Thanksgiving, Holiday) Leaves To Turn Orange?

Plants change color in reaction to environmental & cultural stress. My client's Christmas Cactus had totally turned orange. See what caused this to happen & what I did to fix it.

the leaves of a christmas cactus in a small pot have totally turned orange

Christmas Cactus are commonly sold at holiday time, but did you know they make long lasting houseplants? I find them extremely easy to grow both indoors and outdoors and mine always flower once a year usually twice.

They’re fabulous as can be, but like all plants, issues and problems can arise. The leaves of my client’s Christmas Cactus had turned orange and I thought writing this post was just too good an opportunity to pass up.

Let’s get a bit technical for those of you who geek out on all things plant like me. The Christmas Cactus that you see here and in the video is actually a Thanksgiving (or Crab) Cactus. It was labeled as a CC when I bought it and that’s how it’s commonly sold in the trade.

Nowadays you may see them labeled as Holiday Cactus. Regardless of which one you have, this can happen to any of them.

a small christmas cactus which has turned orange all over sits on a table
This plant is beyond orange – it’s turning a deep bronze. The leaves are thin & droopy.

Plants turn color in response to some type of environmental or cultural stress. This one turned deep orange/brown/bronze (the color is open to interpretation!) mainly due to lack of water. At times it has gotten a bit too much sun. If you look closely at the leaves, you can see they’re thin and wrinkled – that’s dehydration.

I bought this Holiday Cactus at the Santa Barbara Farmer’s Market at least 6 years ago. It was part of a holiday dish garden I made for the table on my client’s front porch. She lives on the coast a half hour south of San Francisco about 1/4 mile from the Pacific. The other plants have long since gone to the compost barrel but this one somehow has survived. Oh, did I mention Christmas Cacti are tough? This is proof!

These succulents are epiphytic cacti and differ from the desert cacti that I’m surrounded by here in Tucson. In their natural rainforest habits, Christmas Cacti grow on other plants and rocks; not in the soil. They are sheltered by the canopies of trees and shrubs and thrive when protected from full, direct sun.

Changing Color

Because they like protection from full sun, Christmas Cactus can also turn orange/brown/bronze exposed to too much of it. Yellow leaves can also signal too much sun or too much water. My Thanksgiving Cactus grew outside in Santa Barbara and would tinge burgundy/purple in the winter months in reaction to the cooler temps.

When I first arrived at my client’s house in early December, the poor Thanksgiving Cactus was lying on its side on the other end of the front porch. She lives close to the Pacific so at least it gets some moisture from the fog. I think that’s what has kept it alive!

a small christmas cactus which has turned orange/bronze all over sits on a potting bench next to a clay pot & 2 bags of orchid potting mix
Here’s what I found for the transplanting – an epiphytic orchid mix & a terrestrial orchid mix.

I watered it well by soaking the root ball in a bowl grow pot and all. I transplanted it into a slightly bigger pot (the only one closely suitable that I could find in the garage) which was a much heavier ceramic than the thin plastic pot it was in. She had an assortment of orchid planting mixes so I used the ones you see above in a 1:1 ratio.

FYI: My own Thanksgiving Cactus needs to be transplanted in a bad way. It put out a 2nd bloom last year in late February/early March so I want to see if that’s going to happen again this year. Plus, I’m going to wait until the evening temps warm up and we’re closer to Spring. Stay tuned for that one – I use a special planting blend that these popular plants love.

a christmas cactus whose foliage has turned orange/bronze sits under a table next to a copper watering can
The watering can is right next to the plant. Hint, hint!?

I put my client’s plant under the porch table where it still gets light but won’t receive full sun. That, plus the heavier pot, should stop it from blowing around like it had been. I’ve given someone the head’s up about watering it so hopefully that’ll happen. Anything will help!

Will the plant turn green? I expect it will. I’ve never seen a Christmas Cactus turn this orange all over. My Aloe vera had really changed color due to stress and reverted back to green after it was transplanted and moved out of full sun. I’ll check in with my client in 6 months and see how it’s doing.

a christmas cactus (thanksgiving cactus) covered in red flowers grows in a terra cotta pot
Wrapping it up with a prettier picture: Here’s my own Thanksgiving in full bloom a couple of months ago.

When I first saw this poor Christmas Cactus laying on its side, I knew I had to due a post and video about it. If your Christmas Cactus is turning orange (or another color), it’s due to stress. This happens to all other plants too. We humans react to stress, and plants are no different!

You can find more houseplant info in my simple and easy to digest houseplant care guide: Keep Your Houseplants Alive.

Much more on houseplants here!

Happy gardening,

Nell-Foster-Joy-Us-Garden

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