Christmas Cactus is an easy-care, attractive houseplant that can live for a long time. Here’s a simple guide on how to care for Christmas Cactus during its blooming period and for the long term as well.
Do you want a cool blooming plant for the holiday season? Well, look no further. Christmas Cactus, aka Holiday Cactus, is the one for you.
I happen to find this long-lasting succulent houseplant very attractive. Don’t send it to the compost after Christmas because it’s easy to care for and will grow for many years to come if maintained to its liking.
Christmas Cactus vs Thanksgiving Cactus: There is a Difference
First off, let’s get a bit technical for those of you who geek out on all things plant as I do. My scarlet Christmas Cactus that you see in the lead photo above and in the video is actually a Thanksgiving (or Crab) Cactus.
It was labeled as a Christmas Cactus when I bought it and that’s how it’s commonly sold in the trade. Most of us want them to start their bloom in late November so it’s one of those clever marketing things!
Nowadays you may see them labeled for sale as Holiday Cactus. Regardless of which one you have, you care for these popular epiphytic cacti in the same manner.
Both the Thanksgiving and the Christmas Cacti fall under the genus Schlumbergera, which I learned as Schlumbergia years ago. The Thanksgiving Cactus (Schlumbergera truncata) has little spine-like notches coming off its leaves, just like a crab claw hence that common name. The leaves of the Christmas Cactus (Schlumbergera bridgesii) are smoother and rounder.
The Thanksgiving Cactus is timed to flower in November/December whereas it’s December/January for the Christmas Cactus. There’s also an Easter Cactus that is a bit harder to grow indoors and is timed to bloom in spring.
Note: This post was originally published on 11/25/2017. It was updated 10/7/2021 with more info & new images.
You can watch my Christmas Cactus care tips in this video:
Other Christmas Cactus Care Guides: Getting Christmas Cactus To Bloom Again, Christmas Cactus Repotting, Christmas Cactus Propagation, Christmas Cactus Flowering More Than Once A Year, Christmas Cactus Leaves Turning Orange
How To Care For Christmas Cactus
Below are things you should know about when growing and caring for Christmas Cactus plants. Enjoy!
Christmas Cacti are most commonly sold in 4″ or 6″ pots. I’ve also seen them in 6″, 8″, and 10″ hanging baskets.
Many years ago I saw one in a greenhouse in Connecticut with quite the weeping form that was really big. It was over 6′ wide. Yes, they can be a long-lasting houseplant!
They like and do best in bright, natural light; a medium to high light exposure. Be sure to keep them out of the direct sun and hot windows because their fleshy leaves will burn.
Although they don’t do well in full sun, they do need bright light to grow, to bloom successfully, and to stay looking good throughout the year.
Mine grows on the bottom shelf of a long table in my dining room with quite a few other houseplants. It sits about 7′ away from a trio of south facing windows in bright but indirect light.
These epiphytic cacti differ from the desert cacti that I’m surrounded by here in Tucson. In their natural rainforest habits, Schlumbergeras grow on other plants and rocks; not in the soil.
This means their roots need to breathe. You don’t want to keep them constantly moist or they’ll eventually succumb to root rot.
Give yours a good drink and let all the excess water thoroughly run out of the drainage holes on the bottom of the pot. Allow the potting mix to go dry before you water it again.
How often you water your Christmas Cactus depends on home temperature, the exposure it’s growing in, the pot size and type, and the soil mix it’s planted in.
I water mine growing in an 8″ pot every 2-3 weeks in summer and every 3-5 weeks in winter.
When your Holiday Cactus is blooming, water it a bit more often. After it has flowered, back off on the watering in winter. You can increase the watering frequency in spring and summer if need be.
My Christmas Cacti grew outdoors in terra cotta pots in my Santa Barbara garden. Yes, they do grow outdoors year round in temperate climates. I watered them every week in the warmer weather and sometimes not at all in the winter, depending on if we had rain or not.
Related: How to Water Indoor Plants
In our homes, Christmas Cacti prefers warmer daytime temps (65 – 75) and to be kept cooler at night. They actually need those cooler temperatures when setting their buds.
Santa Barbara winter temps could dip into the low 40’s or high 30’s and mine growing in the garden were fine. If yours has been outdoors for the summer, bring it into the house before the temperatures drop too low. They can’t take a freeze and definitely not a blanketing of snow.
(It was Nov 21 as I initially wrote this post and my Holiday Cactus in Tucson was already half bloomed out. The temps were in the low to mid-80’s so I put it outside at night with temps around 55F to try and prolong the bloom a bit).
Just know that the warmer your house is, the quicker the blooming period will go by. Be sure to keep yours away from any heaters, and conversely, any cold drafts.
These are tropical cacti so they prefer and do best with high humidity like the rest of your tropical houseplants. Our homes tend to be on the dry side so you may have to up the ante a bit with the humidity.
I live in the desert and have 3 Canopy Humidifiers that I run in my kitchen, dining room/living room, and bedroom when the humidity inside gets below 30%. This is the gauge I use to measure humidity by the way.
If mine starts to look not as robust and a bit on the dry side, I’ll also put it on a saucer filled with pebbles and water. Be sure to keep the bottom of the pot out of the water because you don’t want any rotting.
I had never fertilized any of mine until I moved to Tucson. I would always amend them with worm compost and organic compost every spring and still do. They always flowered fine. Here in the desert where it’s much hotter and drier, so I feed them a few times during the spring/summer.
Yours may not need it but if you like to fertilize, you can use a balanced liquid houseplant fertilizer (such as 10-10-10 or 20-20-20) in early spring, early summer and mid-summer.
My friend used an all-around orchid fertilizer (20-10-20) on his Christmas Cactus once in spring and then again in summer and it looked great.
I now buy a combo of organic worm compost/compost at our farmers market. That’s what I use for spring feeding and repotting and planting. I also feed my Christmas Cactus 4 times a year March through September with Eleanor’s VF-11 because the climate is tougher on it here than in more humid Santa Barbara.
Related: How I Feed Indoor Plants
As I said, Holiday Cacti grow on other plants, rocks and bark – they don’t grow in soil. In nature they feed off leaf matter and debris. This means they like a very porous mix that also has some richness to it.
The potting mix needs to provide excellent drainage because the roots of a Christmas Cactus can’t stay constantly wet.
I use mostly DIY succulent and cactus mix that is very chunky along with a bit of potting soil and compost mixed in. The DIY mix contains coco chips and coco fiber. This environmentally friendly alternative to peat moss is pH neutral, increases nutrient holding capacity and improves aeration.
Related: Repotting Christmas Cactus
My newly repotted Christmas Cactus (technically Thanksgiving Cactus) on the left & a yellow variety on the right.
The only reasons for pruning would be if yours needed taming due to spreading over time or if you want to propagate it.
Just be sure to cut off whole leaf sections. They’re easy to identify because of the indents.
Like most succulents, a Christmas Cactus is very easy to propagate. You can do it by leaf cuttings or by stem segments as well as by division.
As you’ll see in the video, mine is actually 3 plants growing in 1 pot. I could easily divide them by pulling the individual plants apart or by cutting the root ball carefully with a knife into 3 separate plants. I’d plant them in separate pots in the succulent/compost mix.
You can take individual leaf cuttings by pruning the terminal leaf sections off. I prefer to twist them off whether it’s a single leaf or a segment that to me constitutes a stem.
Then heal off the single leaves or stem segments for 5-7 days. Plant in that loose mix with about 1/2-2″ of the end sticking in depending on the size of the cuttings. They’ll start to root in 2-4 weeks, depending on your climate.
I find that propagation is best done 2 to 4 months after the flowering has stopped.
Related: Christmas Cactus Propagation
Mine has only gotten a touch of mealybugs (they look like little specks of cotton) which simply I hose off. If that doesn’t get them, I dab them off with a cotton swab dipped into 1 part rubbing alcohol to 3 parts water.
Easy on the rubbing alcohol – it can burn a plant. You may want to test it out on a small section of the plant 1st and wait a few days to see how it reacts.
They’re also prone to spider mites. With any pest, you want to take action when you 1st see it because they spread like crazy.
Root rots can be a problem if you keep them too wet. The plant starts to whither, wilts, and then eventually dies. This is a very good reason not to overwater this plant.
So, they need 12 – 14 hours of darkness per day. Start this reduction in light approximately 6-8 weeks before you want it to bloom.
Keep them drier at this process as this will help force them into dormancy. Water them anywhere from every 4-6 weeks depending on the temps, the mix it’s in, and the size and type of pot it’s planted in.
You want to keep the temps between 50 & 65 degrees F. 50-55 degrees is best at night. If your temps are warmer, they’ll require a longer period of darkness.
It can take a bit of effort to move yours into a closet or basement every night but perhaps you have a spare room that naturally has these conditions.
After the flower buds start to appear, then you can move them back to a bright spot, resume the care you were previously giving it , and enjoy the beautiful flowers.
If the buds on your Christmas Cactus are falling off before they open, it could be because it’s too wet or it’s gone through some type of environmental stress (temperature fluctuations, too much sun, cold drafts, etc).
I’ve seen the flowers in red, violet, white, peach, yellow, pink, and bi-color.
By the way, mine that I grew outdoors in Santa Barbara bloomed on their own. Mother Nature handles the darkness in fall!
Bravo! Holiday Cacti are non-toxic to both cats and dogs. You and your pets can enjoy them with no worries. Here is more info on houseplants and toxicity in regards to our furry loved ones.
Some Of Our General Houseplant Guides For Your Reference:
- Guide To Watering Indoor Plants
- Beginner’s Guide To Repotting Plants
- 3 Ways To Successfully Fertilize Indoor Plants
- How to Clean Houseplants
- Winter Houseplant Care Guide
- Plant Humidity: How I Increase Humidity For Houseplants
- Buying Houseplants: 14 Tips For Indoor Gardening Newbies
- 11 Pet-Friendly Houseplants
More Christmas Cactus Growing Tips
Don’t rush to repot your Christmas Cactus. It’ll bloom better if slightly pot bound. Every 3-5 years is best, depending on how fast it’s growing. Repotting it a 2-3 months after bloom time is best.
If your Holiday Cactus is changing color, usually to an orangish/reddish/or brownish hue, that means it’s stressed. Common causes are too much sun or too little water.
Water yours a bit more often when it’s flowering.
If you water one too often, plainly put, it’ll mush out.
Conversely, too little water will cause it to shrivel and change color.
You can get a Thanksgiving Cactus to bloom a bit later by keeping it cool – 50 to 55F. The flowers will open slower and last longer.
Spent flower blossoms can be removed by holding on to the leaf section and gently twisting them off.
Whether you call them Christmas Cacti, Thanksgiving Cacti, or Holiday Cacti, the care is the same. The Thanksgiving Cactus blooms about 3-4 weeks earlier than the Christmas Cactus and is popular because most people want to get a jump on their Christmas flowers.
I was told by a grower that Thanksgiving Cacti ship easier because they’re not as pendulous as Christmas Cacti and the leaves tend not to break off. Hence, they’re sold as Holiday Cactus.
Whichever one you have, it makes a long-lasting houseplant. Christmas Cactus care is easy and they’re wonderful when in bloom. I think I need (want!) to get another one – how about you?
PS: If you are looking for your own Christmas Cactus you can get a red one here.
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