The Christmas cactusis a long-lasting holiday plant (move over poinsettias!) that flowers in winter with colorful, tubular flowers in pink or lilac colors. Learn how to care for a Christmas cactus—how much to water this succulent, how to get a Christmas cactus to bloom, and how to propagate for a gift that will give year after year!
About Christmas Cacti
The Christmas cactus(Schlumbergera x buckleyi) is a popular houseplant that blooms indoors in the winter, so it’s popular at holiday time and makes a great gift, too. Unlike regular cacti, however, this is not a plant from a dry, hot, desert location. Instead, this is a succulent native to tropical rainforests, where they grow on tree branches and soak up the high humidity, dappled sunlight, and warm temperatures.
The bottom line: Don’t treat a Christmas cactus like a run-of-the-mill cactus! It’s important to water these cacti more regularly but also to be cautious of keeping them too wet. (See detailed care instructions below.)
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 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 on an unheated porch until temperatures get below 50°F (10°C). Keep them out of direct outdoor sunlight.
How to Care for Christmas Cacti
Plan to water every 2 to 3 weeks, but only water when the top one-third of the soil feels dry to the touch. For example, if the plant is in 6 inches of soil, water when the top 2 inches feel dry. (Use your finger to check!)
When the soil is sufficiently dry, soak the soil until water runs through the pot’s drainage holes. Place a tray underneath the pot to catch the water. After 10-15 minutes, discard any excess water in the tray so that the pot doesn’t sit in water.
It’s especially important to water well while the plant is flowering.
From spring through early fall, feed every 2 weeks with a balanced houseplant fertilizer. Feed the cactus monthly in the fall and winter to encourage successful blooming.
Prune plants in late spring to encourage branching and more flowers. Simply cut off a few sections of each stem; the plant will branch from the wound.
If you wish, place the cut pieces in a lightly moist potting soil—they root easily after a few weeks and make for excellent Christmas presents!
How to Get Your Christmas Cactus to Bloom
The blooms of Christmas cacti and its relatives are triggered by the cooler temperatures and longer fall nights. The three main types of holiday cacti generally bloom according to this schedule:
Thanksgiving cacti are the earliest and longest bloomers, typically producing flowers from late fall through mid-winter.
Christmas cacti tend to bloom from early winter to mid-winter.
Easter cacti bloom from late winter to mid-spring.
If your cactus is NOT blooming, it may be receiving too much light or too high temperatures. Here are some tips to encourage yours to produce flowers!
To trigger blooming, nights need to be at least 14 hours long and days between 8 to 10 hours for at least six weeks. If you have strong indoor lighting that’s on at night, you may need to cover your cactus or move it to an area that’s exposed to the natural light cycle.
Flower buds form best when the plant is kept in temperatures between 50 and 60°F (10 and 15°C).
You can kickstart the budding process by exposing the plant to temperatures of about 45°F (7°C) for several nights in a row.
Make sure that you are consistent with watering while the plant is in flower. If the plant dries out too much, it may drop its buds.
If the cactus sheds its buds one winter, don’t worry: it should bloom the following year!
There are three main types of “holiday cacti” available:
Thanksgiving cacti (Schlumbergera truncata) bloom from late fall to mid-winter and are often mislabeled as Christmas cacti.
Christmas cacti(S. x buckleyi) bloom from early winter to mid-winter.
Easter cacti(S. gaertneri) bloom from later winter to mid-spring.
Wit and Wisdom
When the buds of a Christmas cactus look like they’re about to open, ensure you water the plant regularly and keep it cool.
Late spring is the best time to propagate cuttings because most holiday cacti emerge from their winter rest and initiate new growth.
Blossom drop: If your Christmas cactus is exposed to any stress, it will likely drop its blossoms. This could be related to the amount of light or a sudden temperature change, as discussed in the above plant care section. Also, ensure your soil doesn’t get too dry while buds form.
The plant may be susceptible to mealy bugs and, if over-watered, root rot. If you have problems, remove infected areas and repot in clean soil.