Christmas Cactus Care – Schlumbergera Plant Guide

christmas cactus with pink flowers in white pot

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Several plants have been known to bloom specifically during the festive seasons, and even some of them are named after the holiday seasons. A Christmas cactus plant, for example, is characteristically named because it blooms at just about the same time as Christmas, stretching into the New Year. The colors of its leaves and flowers are also similar colours with Christmas (green and whitish pink).

If you’re looking to get that natural Christmas flair in your homegrown garden, then the Christmas cactus plant is one houseplant you must have! Stick around, and this article will provide you with a complete guide on all you need to know about the Christmas cactus: how to propagate it, some important proper care tips, and how to differentiate Christmas cacti from other holiday cacti plants.

Christmas Cactus Vs Thanksgiving Cactus: What’s The Difference?

The Christmas cactus plant is often confused with its similar family member, the Thanksgiving cactus plant. You might be under the impression that you’re planting a true Christmas cactus plant only to get stunned that the plant has started blooming a few weeks before the Christmas season. This common mix-up occurs between the Christmas cactus and the Thanksgiving cactus plant.

The Christmas cactus and the Thanksgiving cactus are highly similar, but there are some subtle and major differences between them that you can use to tell them apart. The two major differences between both cacti lie in their leaf shape and their blooming seasons.

thanksgiving-vs-christmas-cactus
Differences between the Christmas cactus and the Thanksgiving cactus.

Christmas Cactus Plant

« Leaf Shape: The Christmas Cactus has rounded, scalloped leaves.

« Blooming Season: The Christmas Cactus plant blooms from November into January.

Thanksgiving Cactus Plant

« Leaf Shape: The Thanksgiving Cactus has pointy leaves.

« Blooming Season: Thanksgiving Cacti blooms between November and December.

You can use these two distinctions to tell a Christmas cactus and a Thanksgiving cactus plant aside. Although the method of propagation and care for both plants are completely the same, it’s important to tell them rightly apart if you want your plant of choice to bloom at the right season and have the right look. A third plant that is also similar to the Christmas and Thanksgiving cacti is the Easter cacti, but this plant falls under a completely different plant group.

Below is a comprehensive table detailing the individual characteristics of the Christmas cactus, the Thanksgiving Cactus, and the Easter cactus plants:

Binomial (Scientific) NameLeaf ShapeFlower ShapeBlooming Season
Christmas CactusSchlumbergera bridgesiiRounded, scalloped leavesChristmas cacti have tubular flowersBlooms from December into January
Thanksgiving CactusSchlumbergera truncataPointy edges on the leavesThanksgiving cacti have tubular flowersBlooms between November and December
Easter CactusRhipsalidopsis gaertneri/Schlumbergera gaertneriRounded, smooth-edged leavesFlowers are dominantly star-shaped, instead of tubularBlooms in early spring (between February/March and May)
identifying-holiday-cacti-comparison-thanksgiving-christmas-easter

Despite their characteristic differences, all plants still fall under the general category of holiday cacti, and have certain similarities; such as all three of them being tropical plants and epiphytic cactuses (this means they grow with their roots attached to tree branches or rocks), they are all indigenous to the Central and South American jungles.

All three-holiday cacti are also non-parasitic, despite being epiphytic plants. This means that they don’t draw their nutrients from their growing host, so if you ever see them growing naturally on trees in your outdoor garden or farm, you don’t have to worry about them killing the host plant they grow on.

  • If you’re interested in learning how to grow other cacti plants (holiday and non-holiday) indoors, then click this link for a beginner’s guide to cacti care.

Propagating a Christmas Cactus: Soil or Water?

Christmas cactuses can be propagated at home. The process is very easy and doesn’t require any form of expertise. You can also propagate this holiday cactus plant in water if you’re unable to get your hands on the characteristic soil for growing holiday cacti. This makes it easy to grow in its early stages. However, be sure to get a suitable medium to transplant your plant after a certain level of growth.

Growing in Soil

To propagate your cactus plant in soil, here is an important point to note first:

Do not plant your Christmas cactus plant in just any soil. Holiday cacti (or cactus plants, in general) have a specific kind of potting medium they thrive in. This medium can usually be purchased as a Cactus Mix from your local retail gardening grocery store. If you’re unable to find it around you, however, make sure to use porous, fast-draining soil for your nursery propagation.

Now let’s get into the propagative process!

Steps for Propagation:

  • Take multiple cuttings/nodes (at least three nodes) off the cactus extensions with about three/four leaves per node. Leave these nodes for about three to four days so the wet ends (where they’ve been cut) can dry out before planting. 
holding-healthy-node-for-propagation
  • Put the cutting/node approximately halfway (or half an inch) into the soil. Do this for each of the nodes, with three to four nodes in the soil, depending on the size of your nursery pot.
christmas-cactus-node-plant-in-soil

You’re done! Propagating your Christmas cactus in the soil is just as easy as those two steps. You should begin to see some root development in your plants after about six weeks. However, here are some important points you should note for the first few weeks following your propagation:

  • Don’t let the soil remain dry for too long. Water the plant periodically, but in little amounts, especially for the first few days.
  • For the first 1-2 weeks after propagation, use as little water as possible. This is because there isn’t substantial root development of the newly propagated plants to absorb excess water. As new roots start to grow, increase watering appropriately.
  • Keep your nursery soil moist and not wet. Holiday cacti in general do not perform well in wet soils.
  • Transplant the plant into a slightly larger pot if the nursery pot gets too small to accommodate it as the plant grows.

Growing in Water

This is an easier and faster way of propagating your cactus plant if you’re unable to get a hold of the appropriate soil.

Steps for Propagation:

  • Fill a small glass container with water, up to about a quarter of the container.
  • Allow a node with 2/3 leaves to sit in the new container of water, with the dried end touching the water. Only one node may be used, especially depending on the size of the container. The image below is an appropriate example:
node-propagate-in-glass-with-water

Done and dusted! Your cactus plant doesn’t need much else once you’ve propagated it this way. You should begin to see some root development in your plant after about three weeks. This makes propagation with water quite faster than propagating with soil.

Image showing the extent of root development in both the soil and water propagate nodes six weeks after planting.

Right care Tips for Your Christmas Cactus Plant

Now that you’ve successfully propagated your plants and you’re starting to see some root growth, here are some care tips you can use to keep your plants healthy and fresh until they’re ready to bloom for the festive season:

1.) Provide Them with Adequate Natural Light 

Christmas cacti are sensitive to too much light. It’s important to provide just enough light required for growth. Do not put the plants under direct sunlight, or else you risk the sun bleaching out and burning their foliage. This also doesn’t mean you keep them completely out of a light source. Christmas cacti can handle lower light situations, but they bloom better under indirect light.

2.) Check Weekly for Adequate Water Supply 

Holiday cacti plants, in general, are different from a desert plant, which can go long hours without water. They require more regular watering, but the quantity required is where the difference lies. Water them thoroughly, especially as their roots grow. However, make sure to use a pot with holes for drainage to allow the water to drain out and away from the pot.

« Precaution: Christmas cacti (and other holiday cacti) cannot tolerate wetness. In case you use a pot that sits on a saucer that collects drained water, be sure to pour that water out periodically so the soil is not waterlogged.

The temperature, best time of year, and size of your pot also play an important role in how often you water the plant. At the least, water the plant every 1-3 weeks, and water them once a week at the most. Be sure to allow the soil to dry between waterings.

3.)Transplant into a Cactus Soil Mix

Apart from the soil you use for your plant’s nursery, be sure to use a porous, fast-draining cactus mix when transplanting into a new pot. This soil is preferred because it allows their roots to breathe. Also, Christmas cactus blooms better when it is pot-bound so they don’t need to be repotted until every 2-3 years.

Note: When you decide to repot, do it a couple of months after their bloom time.

  • Bonus Tip for Transplanting (and initial Nursery Planting): 

When setting up your nursery and/or transplant soil, pot a mix of the original soil from the mother plant along with a new cactus mix. Do the same for the mother plant, so you can keep some of the old soil as well. This is a method that guarantees growth by 99%, according to gardeners.

4.) Keep them at Room Temperature

Christmas cacti like the same temperatures we humans do. Just like us, they get uncomfortable when the weather gets too hot or too cold. Keep them at 65-75 degrees Fahrenheit. Do not leave them out in the full sun on hot days or leave them out in the cold drafts during late winter.

5.) Keep Their Immediate Environment Humid

Christmas Cacti like humid conditions. For people living in humid climates, there isn’t much to do to keep these plants happy, but for anyone living in a dry climate, you might need to create a false humidity. This can be done by putting the cactus pot on a tray of pebbles or a saucer filled with pebbles and water. Ensure the bottom of the pot is not in contact with the water. When the water evaporates, it creates a humid environment around the cactus plant.

6.) Fertilize the Plant Frequently

Fertilizer helps them put on a lot of new growth during their normal growing season. Once you see the appearance of new growth on the plant, fertilize once a month till about mid-summer.

« Note: Do not fertilize them before or during their bloom cycle (the bloom cycle is late summer months through winter months for Christmas cacti).

7.) Cool room temperatures and Darker Nights help set New Flower Buds to Bloom

Christmas cactus plants need longer periods of darkness, cool temperatures, and less moisture for blooming. To achieve this, put them in a spot that gets 12-14 hours of complete darkness, and at temperatures ranging from 50-55 degrees Fahrenheit. The plant can then be in bright lights for the remaining 10 hours of the day at temperatures between 50-65 degrees Fahrenheit.

Provide these right conditions for them 6-8 weeks before blooming starts (late fall) for beautiful flower blooms once the flowers develop. Once new flower buds begin to appear, the cactus plant can be returned to its usual spot and your normal care routine can be continued.

« Note: You can also cease watering for the entire month of October while restricting the plant from light, and then resume watering when you bring it back into the light again. Be careful, however, about sudden changes in light, temperature, and higher humidity as that can lead to bud drop in the plant.

« Bud Drop: This occurs when the buds fall off the plant and cease blooming. It is caused by drastic changes in the plant’s immediate environment.

8.) Prune yearly, If Needed

 Pruning is only required for rough, unruly-looking new plants. It can be done by cutting between two leaf segments. The cut-off pieces can be used for propagation purposes as well, following the propagation stages explained above.

9.) Check for Stress, Diseases, and Insects

Stress and Diseases

The main stressor for Christmas cacti is waterlogged soil, caused by overwatering the plant. Overwatering can lead to stem segments and root rot: a disease that makes the foliage shrivel, and causes limping of the plant, before ultimately leading to wilting of the plant. Another symptom of the disease is whole branches rotting and breaking off at the base of the plant. Waterlogged/wet soil also attracts fungus gnats.

Prevention: To prevent these diseases from occurring, you should:

  • Never overwater the plant or soil,
  • Never water the soil after it has dried out,
  • Put the cactus in a breathable terracotta clay pot, instead of a plastic nursery pot (especially after the plant grows).

Treatment: If you see any of the aforementioned signs, pull the plant out of its pot and extract as much soil from the stem as possible. After that, remove rotten-looking roots. Re-pot the treated plant in a fresh, sterile cactus soil mix.

« Note: A reddish hue/coloration on the cactus is another sign of stress. This is a sign that it’s either been getting too much sunlight, or it isn’t getting enough water. If you notice this, be sure to adjust either the location, light exposure, or watering frequency of the plant appropriately.

Insects

Christmas cacti are not very prone to common problems. If, however, you notice an insect or pest problem, take your plant down to any of your local garden centers so they can help you find the right insecticide for treatment.

Click here for more tips on how to grow various succulent plants like cactus at home.  

Conclusion

Christmas cacti are one of the easiest and most beautiful holiday cacti to grow and care for in your home. They require little to no technical expertise and aren’t tedious to cater to either. 

Once you get the soil mix, the adequate watering frequency, and light requirements right, the plant pretty much does the rest of the work on its own, and when it hits a blooming season, they brighten up your home garden with some beautiful plants that indubitably match the holiday season.

Let's grow together!

Patrick Chism

Patrick likes to pretend that urban gardening is just a hobby, but he’s actually prepping for the apocalypse. He’s a practical grower, specializing in hydroponics systems and grow lights. His dream is to one day feed his family with just the food he grows in his Chicago-based condo.

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