Providing vibrant, cheerful flowers during the holidays, Christmas cactus plants are a classic choice for growing in the home.
When you hear the word cactus, you probably picture a big, succulent that needs dry conditions, right? Not these plants. They grow in forests and need similar conditions to other houseplants.
If you’re looking for something easy to care for and a little different, this is the perfect plant to grow at home.
All About Christmas Cactus
Christmas cactus (Schlumbergera russelliana, S. bridgessii, and S. buckleyi) is also known as holiday cactus and crab cactus. The crab name for this plant refers to its long, curved leaves with pointed ends, which resemble crab claws.
This plant is part of the Schlumbergera species, which originates in tropical Brazil. They’re covered in tube-shaped flowers that bloom in neon pink, red, cream, orange, white, or yellow, so they’re easy to spot in any room.
Christmas cacti can be grown outdoors in USDA Hardiness Zones 9-11.
These plants are epiphytes, which means that instead of growing in the ground in the soil, they grow on trees and get moisture and nutrients from the air and dirt that falls in the crevices of the host trees.
Easter, Thanksgiving, or Christmas Cactus?
It can be a little challenging to tell the closely related holiday plants apart. Just remember, they’re named for the time of year when they bloom. The blossoms and leaves appear similar, so it can be hard to tell them apart that way.
The Christmas cactus blooms in December, whereas the Easter cactus (Rhipsalidopsis gaertnerrii) starts to bloom in February. Thanksgiving cacti (S. truncata) bloom around late November when people in the US are celebrating Thanksgiving.
If you look closely at the leaves, Thanksgiving leaves are extremely claw-shaped with protrusions on the sides. Christmas leaves have scalloped leaf projections, and Easter has rounded leaves.
Another difference between these plants is Easter cacti need warm temperatures around 70-85°F, and Christmas cacti need cooler temperatures in the 60s. Thanksgiving cacti prefer something right in between.
Growing a Christmas Cactus
You’ll want to find the right pot before gathering other materials like potting soil mix for your Christmas cactus. The best options for this plant are terra cotta or clay pots.
Pots made from these materials are great as they’re porous and allow water to evaporate better, so there’s less risk of root damage or overwatering. You can either pick a pot with several drainage holes or one large drainage hole. Either option is great for this plant.
Choose a pot that’s 1 or 2 inches larger than the root ball so there’s space for growth and to retain moisture.
The right light conditions for Christmas cacti is bright, indirect light. Although this plant is adaptable to other light levels, the best climate is partial shade, so a windowsill or similar would be ideal.
During winter, when the temperatures are low and the light is weaker, you can place them in full sunlight but never leave them exposed to full sun during warm summer days, as this will turn the leaves pale and yellow.
Soil for Christmas Cacti
Soil for a Christmas cactus should be loamy, water-retentive, and light. You can use a standard cactus potting mix for your plant but you’ll need to water more often.
A general-purpose potting soil is also suitable for Christmas cacti, but work in lots of perlite to improve drainage.
The pH levels should be 5.5-6.2 if you want optimal growth and bright flowers. Most potting soils are close to this.
Temperature and Humidity
Christmas cacti need cool temperatures and moderate humidity, so leaving a pebble tray with water under the pot during the growing season is smart. Alternatively, you can frequently mist the plant during winter to ensure it gets enough humidity.
The best temperatures for this plant are around 70°F during the day, with low nighttime temperatures of 65°F. To encourage flowering, drop the temperature to about 10 degrees lower during the day and night.
To ensure the plant doesn’t receive too much heat, you should avoid placing it near heater vents or radiators. Keep the plant away from drafty areas like frequently opened doors or air vents, as this could shock the plant and impact its growth.
Propagate a Christmas Cactus
The easiest way to propagate a Christmas cactus is by seed, but most people opt to simply purchase a seedling. Look for high-quality seeds from a reputable grower to ensure they’re fresh.
Here is a simple step-by-step guide to propagating Christmas cacti by seed:
- Plant the seeds in potting mix and cover them with a thin layer of soil
- Cover the pot with plastic wrap to increase humidity
- Place the pot in a spot with bright, indirect light
- Spray the soil every day to keep the top layer moist
- After two or three weeks, the seeds should emerge
- Transplant the seedlings into their new pot when they’re three inches tall
Caring for Christmas Cacti
Due to the tropical nature of this plant, you’ll have to water Christmas cacti frequently to keep them happy. When the top of the soil feels dry, you should grab your watering can and water thoroughly.
The watering routine will depend on the environment, but you should always check the topsoil at least every few days.
You can feed your Christmas cacti a solution of half-strength diluted fertilizer. Stop feeding the plant fertilizer when the flowers begin to bloom.
When the flowers have faded and the blooming phase has passed, you can continue fertilizing to provide your plant the energy it needs to generate new blossoms.
Think about repotting your Christmas cacti if the roots become too large for the pot. This plant enjoys being rootbound, so you don’t need to be worried about the roots twisting around the base, but once there’s not much soil left, you need to act.
Repot if you notice the roots blocking the drainage holes. Otherwise, leave your plant as it is because too much movement and transplanting will disrupt its growth and prevent it from blooming.
Remember never to repot this plant when it’s blooming and wait until the flowering season has ended.
Common Pests and Diseases
There are a few pests that can be found on Christmas cactus plants which are:
- Spider mites
- Fungus gnats
Let’s break down the signs and symptoms of these pests, so you’re fully prepared when looking after your plants.
Aphids can often be spotted by their sticky substance left behind when they feed on the plant. This honeydew also attracts sooty mold. Head to our guide to learn about dealing with aphids.
Mealybugs are sap-sucking bugs that feed on plants the same way that aphids do. But, you can see these insects better than aphids as they are bigger and have white, powdery coatings. Our guide can help you eliminate them.
Spider mites are also tricky to spot because they are tiny. You can tell if there are spider mites by the web they leave behind. Our article on spider mites can help you deal with them.
Finally, fungus gnats are common on Christmas cacti. They’ll fly around the plant when disturbed, such as when you water. They can fly, and even though they look like tiny mosquitos, they aren’t. You can usually get rid of them by reducing the amount of water you’re giving and with yellow sticky traps.
The most common disease that infects Christmas cacti is stem rot. You can prevent stem rot by carefully watering and ensuring plants get a good amount of air circulation.
Stem rot is caused by the oomycete Phytophthora capsici and the fungi Rhizoctonia spp. and Fusarium spp. If your plant starts to rot with mushy brown bits on the stem, use a copper fungicide.
Get Your Christmas Cacti to Bloom
People sometimes struggle with getting their Christmas cactus to bloom, so if you’re experiencing problems with flowering, this section will give you some tips.
The key elements to healthy flower growth are light and temperature. Prioritize giving your plant suitable conditions if you want them to produce vibrant and eye-catching petals.
Christmas cacti need at least 8 days of 16 hours of sunlight followed by eight hours of dark if you want them to bloom. The plant also needs to be in an area that is about 60°F.
To get an equal growth of flowers all over the plant, you should rotate the pot regularly. If you leave your Christmas cactus growing in the same position, it will be uneven.