by Matt Gibson
A Christmas cactus makes a lovely gift around the holidays for several reasons, whether you’re looking for a gift for a gardener or someone whose thumb is less than green. First, the Christmas cactus is a super easy plant to care for. Second, it produces long-lasting and beautiful tubular flowers in white, yellow, red, and different shades of pink and purple, such as lilac and lavender. Third, propagating to make new plants from cuttings is easy and has a high success rate, making the Christmas cactus a cheap gift the whole family can enjoy that will make a lovely impression for years to come.
Despite its misleading name, the Christmas cactus actually is not a cactus at all—this stunning seasonal bloomer is a succulent. Strangely enough, Schlumbergera’s natural habitat is in the tropics, a stark contrast to its wintry holiday namesake. In the wild, the succulent makes its home as an epiphyte, living high in the tree branches of the rainforest canopy in its native country of Brazil. Epiphytes grow on the surface of other plants, but they are not parasitic—so although they share space, they don’t siphon resources such as nutrients off the plants whose surfaces they live upon.
Unlike most cacti (and most other succulents, for that matter) the Christmas cactus is not suited to the arid, desert-like garden conditions one might imagine. Schlumbergera actually prefers a moist and humid environment to the dry desert sands. Though keeping your holiday cactus hydrated well enough may seem a bit strange at first, the Christmas cactus needs to be watered much more frequently than most other cacti and succulents. If you’ve grown desert plants before, don’t use their preferences as a guideline for how much moisture your Schlumbergera will need. Instead, keep reading for complete care instructions, tips for propagation, and more.
Varieties of Christmas Cactus
There are several types of cacti that are connected in some way to the holiday season. Aside from the ever-popular Christmas cactus, you’ve probably also seen their counterparts, the Thanksgiving cactus and Easter cactus. Each of these festive flowering succulents goes into its blooming period during the holiday that it is named for.
Most of the cacti that are sold as Christmas cacti are actually Thanksgiving cacti. They’re marketed as Christmas cacti because they go into bloom just before the biggest commercial holiday of the year, making them an attractive option for shoppers preparing for the holiday season. If you want a true Christmas cactus, you’ll want to question the seller carefully—and be prepared to purchase one that isn’t blooming yet when you’re making your list and checking it twice prior to the holiday.
The following tips for selecting the right seasonal cactus will help ensure your Schlumbergera succulent blooms during the holiday you have in mind. Christmas cacti have flattened leaves and are adorned with rounded teeth that splay out from the edges of their leaves.. Easter cacti also have rounded leaves, but they can be distinguished from the other seasonal varieties by their flowers, which are similar to daisies and broader than the blossoms of the Thanksgiving and Christmas cacti. Thanksgiving cacti stand out from the rest due to their pointed, as opposed to rounded, teeth around the perimeter of each of their leaves.
Growing Conditions for Christmas Cactus
Christmas cactus is best suited to container gardening. Though the Schlumbergera can adapt to most any soil type, like most succulents, it prefers a sandy soil to really flourish. Sufficient drainage is essential, so make sure the container that will hold your Christmas cactus has good drainage.
Water Schlumbergera when the top layer of its soil has completely dried. In addition to watering, treating your Christmas cactus to some kind of humidity treatment will ensure that it thrives. You can provide your plant with extra humidity by placing a tray of water near the cactus or using a humidifier. Christmas cactus likes to get some sunlight, but it doesn’t do well with too much direct sun. A nice shady location is preferred.
Prepare Your Christmas Cactus for Blooming
If your Schlumbergera isn’t blooming at the right time of year, it either got too much light and not enough darkness, or it wasn’t kept at the appropriate temperature. Similar to the poinsettia, another popular holiday plant, the Christmas cactus needs a pretty strict care regimen in order to do its magic and bloom during the holiday season. Aside from temperature needs, the Christmas cactus needs at least four weeks of darkness for extended hours in order to flower.
During the day, keep your Christmas cactus comfortable in temperatures that stay around 70 degrees Fahrenheit. During the evenings, the Schlumbergera requires the temperature to decrease to a cool 55 to 65 degrees Fahrenheit in order for it to produce blooms.
In late September or early October, make sure to cover your Schlumbergera plant with a box or move it into a dark room, then leave it in total darkness for 12 to 14 hours per day. Once tiny buds start to appear on your plant, you can stop alternating its schedule between light and darkness.
Once the buds start to get big or begin to open up, move the cactus to its proper location to show it off to maximum effect. However, you’ll still want to make sure that your Schlumbergera doesn’t endure drastic lighting changes or extreme temperatures while it’s on display. Continue to fertilize and water your plant regularly throughout its holiday blooming period.
Care Instructions for Christmas Cactus
Keep your Christmas cactus indoors as a houseplant most of the year, and give it fertilizer in the springtime after its blooming period. During the summer, move your Schlumbergera plant outdoors into a shady location, and don’t forget to keep providing it with water and fertilizer regularly.
Prune your holiday cactus around June to promote new growth and encourage the next season’s flowering. In autumn, before the frosts hit, move the cactus back indoors, and begin watering it less frequently. Start the light/dark budding regimen detailed above in September. During the winter, make sure your cactus gets four to six hours of indirect sunlight, and keep its soil moist. It is extra important during the winter months to monitor your Schlumbergera plant’s humidity. If the air in its environment gets too dry, the Christmas cactus will suffer.
How to Propagate Christmas Cactus
One of the best things about the Christmas cactus is how easy this plant is to propagate, making it a cinch to divide your specimen into a bunch of smaller cacti to give away as gifts during the holidays. Cut a small Y-shaped piece directly from the stem tip of your Schlumbergera, making sure to trim from healthy parts of the succulent. In a sand-based soil, plant the cutting with a quarter of its total length under the surface.
Moisten the new plant’s soil evenly, then place in a spot where it will receive plenty of indirect light. To help root the cuttings, you can cut back shoots from the the second joint of each tip. You will start to see signs of new growth within a two-week period. Once you’ve spotted the new shoots, it is safe to move your baby Christmas cactus plant to another container. At this point, you should ditch the sandy soil for a loosely-packed mix made of equal parts compost, loam, and sand.
Pests and Diseases of Christmas Cactus
Christmas cactus is quick to drop its blossoms if it’s stressed. Stress for this plant could come from a variety of factors, such as temperature or light changes, inadequate moisture levels, lack of nutrition in its soil, and other deviations from its care preferences.
Christmas cacti are susceptible to infestations from mealy bugs. If a Schlumbergera plant’s container doesn’t have sufficient drainage, or if the succulent is overwatered, it could develop root rot. If you notice this issue, simply cut out any infected areas with a clean and sanitized pair of shears, then repot your Christmas cactus in a clean container with new potting soil. Don’t skip the sanitization, either, as sanitizing your tools prevents your plants from becoming infected further with disease.
Want to Learn More About Christmas Cactus?
Check out this video for an in-depth tutorial on how to care for your Christmas cactus:
Watch this video for a tutorial on how to propagate Christmas cactus:
This video has tips on how to root Christmas cactus cuttings:
This video teaches you how to properly prune your Christmas cactus:
Still want more information? See these helpful websites:
Old Farmer’s Almanac covers Growing Christmas Cactus
Gardening Know How covers Advice for Christmas Cactus Care
Good Housekeeping covers How to Keep Your Christmas Cactus Blooming the Whole Holiday Season
HGTV covers Christmas Cactus Care
Lowes covers Caring for a Christmas Cactus