How to Care for a Christmas Cactus – 9 Easy Guided Steps

Cactus and succulents are popular choices of indoor and outdoor greenery. Even the most inexperienced gardeners can find flowering success with the Christmas cactus.

The Christmas cactus plant, also known as Schlumbergera, is a popular winter-blooming succulent that produces lovely flowers. As a type of succulent, its care is minimal and undemanding. Under the right conditions you can even encourage it to bloom. 

As a gardener, I’ve always had a rather black thumb when it comes to growing cacti. Perhaps I provide too much tender loving care. 

When my mom gave me one as a gift, I had no hopes of it surviving (cue Another One Bites the Dust). Alas, I’ve kept Noel alive for over a year and a half – it’s a record for cacti!

Don’t be like me! Keep reading to learn how to care for a Christmas cactus so you can enjoy vibrant, cheerful flowers when the world is cold and dreary outside. 

how to care for a christmas cactus

Table of Contents

How to Care for a Christmas Cactus?

Caring for one is undemanding and easy, making this tropical succulent a great choice for gardening beginners. You can successfully grow this plants indoors or adapt them to enjoy outdoor temperatures. 

The most important thing to remember is that it doesn’t have the same drought resistance and impunity to neglect as other succulents and cacti.

They Like it Warm During the Day & Cool at Night

These beauties do best in temperatures that average 70 to 80 degrees. But they do best with cooler temperatures at night, as low as 50 to 60 degrees. Unfortunately, anything above 70 degrees can slow down or prevent flower blooming. 

Christmas Cactus Love High Humidity

When talking about its humidity needs, they prefer high humidity.

They can thrive under normal humid summer conditions when placed outside. Or if you force an indoor area to have high humidity levels. 

An easy DIY way to introduce consistent humidity is with a plastic tray filled with pebbles underneath the pot. Water filters through the soil and drains over the rocks as you water your plant. 

Then as the water evaporates, it creates damp condensation that can help hydrate your plants between waterings.

You can also put your plants into the bathroom or in a shower, where they will get all the humidity it desires with little to no effort from you. Alternatively, a humidifier can also be a big help.

Bright Light Is Nice, Not Direct Sunlight

They prefer brighter indirect light, not exactly direct sunlight. But you can enjoy a blooming cactus under any lighting conditions.

christmas cactus in indirect light

The leaves can start to burn and blister if there is too much sun intensity directly beaming on them. Choose an east-facing window for the best lighting. However, avoid windows that face south, as these areas have the strongest sun exposure.

Grainy Soil Makes a Christmas Cactus Happy

Christmas Cacti do best in a potting soil blend of all-purpose potting mix and sand.

Some botanical experts like to use coffee grounds in the dirt. Coffee grounds are an excellent source of potassium and nitrogen, which the cactus needs to keep it healthy. But make sure to dry the grounds out first before using as they can get moldy. 

Water More in Spring & Summer

Although this cactus is a succulent that stores water in its fleshy leaves, it requires more frequent water than other succulents.

Your plants need thorough waterings frequently while it actively grows in the spring and summer. The soil should have time to dry out slightly between waterings. 

However, it should never get completely dried out. And never add so much water that your plant sits in a pool of liquid. It can cause rot of the stem and roots. 

Prune When Your Christmas Cactus Gets “Fat”

Regular pruning can ensure that your tropical succulent plant gets the best growth. One of the main ways to know when to prune your plant is if you notice an excessive weight.

If your plant starts experiencing branches that keep falling off the stalk, there is likely too much weight for the plant to support. Cutting back some pieces can help your plant grow stronger and healthier.

You Can Fertilize Every Other Week

An indoor cactus plant can flourish with a dose of a mild houseplant or succulent fertilizer applied every other week. 

Does a Christmas Cactus Flower?

As the name implies, you can encourage a Christmas cactus bloom around the winter holidays by forcing the dormancy period six to eight weeks before your desired bloom time. 

Your cactus plants will produce vibrant flowerings from November to December when the weather is cool and there’s more darkness than daylight.

For the cacti you’ve put outside to grow for the summer, flowering can happen once fall starts to turn the nights cool and the days shorter.

christmas cactus in indirect light

To encourage flowering for indoor plants, choose a dark, cool spot where your plants will get no exposure to any light source. Even a streetlight shining through a window can derail the bloom period. Adding a grow bulb operated by a timer can imitate the plant’s need for light.

You can return your plant to its normal spot once the tips have started to develop buds. While your plant is flowering, keep it at optimal moisture and humidity levels to avoid prematurely losing the flower buds.

Care After Flowering 

After your Cactus finishes its flowering period – around fall – prepare your plant for its dormancy period. This process can also encourage your plants to re-bloom if done six to eight weeks before you want them to flower.

To prepare your Cactus for its dormant stage, reduce the watering frequency. Also, lower the temperature to 50 to 55 degrees Fahrenheit and the plant’s exposure to light, so it gets 12 to 14 hours of uninterrupted darkness. 

The simulation of cooler nights and shorter days lets your plants recuperate from flowering and go into their active growth stage. You’ll also need to avoid drastic changes in sunlight, temperature, moisture, and being around drafty areas.

Can I Propagate a Christmas Cactus?

Christmas cacti are a popular choice for gift plants because they’re so easy to propagate – reproduce – from your parent plant.

Before performing propagation, choose a healthy parent plant. And the stem you will be slicing from should have three nodes, or joined leaf segments, at a minimum.

Make Y shaped cut here

To create new specimens from an existing parent plant, make a small Y-shaped cut from the tip of the stem. Let this cutting sit undisturbed on a solid surface for two to four days to dry out and recuperate from the cuts.

Then transfer this cutting into slightly sandy potting soil, with a quarter of the specimen buried under the coarse dirt. It can also be placed in a glass of water, but I prefer the soil approach as that’s where it’ll end up anyway.

After applying an even layer of water over the soil, place the container in a well-lit area that keeps the plant out of the path of direct sunlight.

What Is the Best Way to Repot a Christmas Cactus?

All plants require occasional repotting to ensure prime growing conditions. Your Christmas Cactus will be no different. 

Your succulent cactus will have a better life and health if you repot the plant every two to three years. But if your plant looks like it’s outgrown its existing container, you may have to repot sooner.

When replanting, always use fresh dirt. The process of transplanting from an old pot to a new one isn’t complex or time-consuming. Follow these simple steps.

  • Take your plant from its existing container and dust off all remnants of the old dirt.
  • Next, give your plant a careful examination, particularly around the roots. If you notice damaged or dead roots, trim these off with clean, dry gardening shears. Never use old, dirty clippers, as there can be diseases and other contaminants that can transfer to your plant.
  • If you want to help improve the oxygen in the roots, you can also perform minor slits to the healthy root system. 
  • Fill your clean, new pot with the appropriate type of half-sandy soil mix. 
  • Then, transfer your growing plant into the new dirt. 
  • You’ll want an inch or two from the soil’s top of space that allows you to have room to water your plant.
  • Step seven gives your plant a healthy dose of evenly distributed water.
christmas cactus repotted

Up-Potting Versus Repotting

You might occasionally run across the terms up-potting and repotting during your journey into being an experienced gardener. 

While these phrasings have similarities and refer to transferring an existing plant into a new growing environment, they aren’t the same. 

If you are performing a traditional repot, you are transferring your growing plant from its existing pot into a new container of roughly equal size. Alternatively, you may return your plant to its original pot. But the term repotting will largely refer to changing the plant’s dirt/soil medium for a new mix.

But if you’re up-potting – also known as potting on – it means transferring your plant from its current pot to a larger planter container. 

Since Christmas cactus plants don’t mind being root-bound and prefer smaller containers, it’s less common that you’ll need to up-pot your plant. You won’t need to choose a larger pot. Rather only focus on swapping out the growing medium – dirt – for new soil. 

Reasons for Up-Potting and Repotting Your Christmas Cactus

The main reason to repot your plant every few years is to change the used dirt for fresh soil with high nutrient content.

But there can also be plenty of other reasons you might decide to change your plant’s home. 

Many people like to repot their new cactus plants after buying them so they can use a decorative flower pot. But, unfortunately, most flowers bought from nurseries or stores are in boring, basic plastic containers rather than lovely decorative units.

And, of course, the plant’s size and growing habit can greatly affect your repotting decisions. For example, if it’s clear that your plant is too small for its existing conditions, you might have to up-pot your plant (move it to a new, larger pot). 

After a few years, your planting medium, or soil, can decay. You might notice that your soil can no longer absorb nutrients and water, evidenced by moisture collecting on the dirt’s surface rather than draining into the ground.

Another issue with long-term use of the same pot and medium is that you might also start to notice signs of the plant or the pot beginning to break down. 

Determining When to Repot Your Christmas Cactus Plant

Your plant’s root system is the best way to know when your plant is ready for repotting. If you pull your specimens out of the pot and notice the roots wrapping around the soil, it’s time to transplant the Cactus to a new home. 

You might also notice roots growing out of the drainage holes at the bottom of the pot. Again, this issue is another sign that you’re past due for resizing your pot. 

christmas cactus roots growing out of pot
Sourced from The Heirloom Lady

Plants that grow at an angle, like they’re falling over, can signify that your plant doesn’t have enough room for your roots to create a sturdy hold. If your plants are starting to tip as they grow, take the time to replant them in a bigger pot.

Poor growing signs can also prove that you must repot your Cactus. Plants that have little to no growth or that experience problems with the dirt drying out too fast after watering or a layer of salt buildup are immediate signs that your plant is desperate for a new home.

What Are Some Potential Issues?

There can be several reasons your plant has reduced flower production or sudden shedding of the buds. 

It could be that your plant isn’t getting the proper amount of darkness exposure. Increase the darkness exposure to thirteen straight hours. 

A sudden temperature change can cause your plant to fail to bloom. Likewise, a rapid heat wave or a sudden cool front – like a wind draft from a window, door, or air conditioner – can cause your plant to lose its flowers prematurely. 

Overwatering of Christmas Cactus

Overwatering can cause signs of excessive water buildup. If you notice signs that you’ve given your plant too much water, cease all watering efforts. Be on the lookout for:

  • Root rot
  • Bad smell
  • The appearance of brown and black spots
  • Foliage changes from green to yellow

Although you can damage your plant by watering it too much, the issues caused are reversible. One way to ensure you never overwater your flowers is to choose a pot with drainage holes. Always examine these holes to be sure they aren’t clogged with dirt.

Other things you can do to try and reverse the damage caused by overwatering include:

  • Skip future waterings until the plant dries out
  • Relocate the plant from a place with high humidity to an area where there isn’t any moisture in the air
  • Choose a new growing spot where the plant will get enough light without being too direct and causing leaf burn. Near a window but out of range of the sun would be perfect.  

Under-watering of Christmas Cactus

Many people might experience problems from the plant not getting enough water. 

The name Cactus is deceiving, as these succulents still require regular healthy waterings. If you notice your plant shedding flower buds rapidly, it’s usually a sign pointing to dehydration. But it could also be an issue with receiving too much sunlight.

To increase the moisture levels while providing the desired humid climate for ideal growth, you can:

  • Place the plant near a humidifier for short periods
  • Build a humidity tray – a container filled with rocks – and place your pot over the stones.
  • Relocate your plant to the bathroom near the shower
  • Gradually increase the frequency and amount of water you give your plants. But don’t do this change in hydration rapidly. Instead, take it slow and never give your plants more water than the species is accustomed to, as these plants don’t require heavy watering.

Any Pests and Diseases?

There are a few potential pest infestations you may experience when growing a Christmas cactus. 

Your plants might get a visit from harmful insects like aphids, scale, or mealy bugs. The easiest way to rid your cacti of these pests is to wipe them away with a soft cloth. 

You can also use a cotton swab coated with alcohol to prevent future infestations. You can also touch the swab to any insects on the plant. The alcohol can cause the insect’s body to break down and eliminate your pest problems.

What Is a Christmas Cactus?

The botanical name is Schlumbergera bridgesii. But, despite the name, this plant isn’t a true cactus. However, it is a succulent tropical native to the jungles of South America.

When it comes to this holiday cactus, many people confuse it with other holiday cacti like the Thanksgiving – Schlumbergera truncata or Easter – Rhipsalidopsis (Hatiora) plants.  

All three cacti types get called Zygocactus, which refers to any holiday cactus. In addition, there are over 300 hybrid cacti varieties of holiday cacti. But none of these three cactus types are the same species. 

The confusion is understandable since the Thanksgiving and Christmas cacti belong to the Schlumbergera genus. Similarly, they have the same growing requirements. And both plants produce lovely brightly-colored tubular flowers.

However, they have different leaf structures, making it easy to tell the two species apart. For example, Thanksgiving cacti – also known as the crab cactus – features clawed edge leaves. But the Christmas cactus leaves are notched, with less pointed tips.

thanksgiving vs christmas vs easter cactus leaves

Easter cactus plants have leaves with more of a paddle shape and rounded smooth edges. The flattened star flowers also differ from the elongated flowers of the Thanksgiving and Christmas varieties.

The Christmas cactus flowers droop with purplish-brown anthers, while the Thanksgiving flower grows horizontally with yellow anthers.

A Christmas cactus gets its name due to its propensity to bloom during the winter, especially around Christmas. These short-day plants require long periods of darkness combined with cool temperatures to bloom – a minimum of twelve hours daily for at least six weeks. 

All three types of holiday cactus plants come in various bold colors. Although red (nearly fuchsia) is the most common, other colors include orange, yellow, and white.

What Are Christmas Cactuses Characteristics?

The Schlumbergera is a 6″ to 12″ tall, 1′ to a 2-feet wide houseplant. This partial sun lover has greenish blue foliage and can form elegant vibrant flowers in shades of red, pink, orange, purple, yellow, or white.

white flowering christmas cactus

How to Plant a Christmas Cactus?

When planting, you can choose a smaller container that will force the roots to become pot-bound. 

Unlike other plant species, this Cactus doesn’t mind being compacted. It also doesn’t have the same issues with being root bound. But picking a pot that’s too big can cause your cactus growth to stall out. 

When choosing the filling, you can go with a standard potting mix. Some people like adding sand or a few pebbles to the top layer of dirt to help with humidity. 

Caring for Christmas Cactus Brightens the Winter Months

Winter’s cold, monotone bleakness can make you feel drab and unmotivated compared to the rejuvenation of the new life of spring. However, when there’s little evidence of the power of Mother Nature during the short days, a Christmas Cactus can be your light in the darkness.

christmas cactus blooms up close

Much preferring the shorter daylight hours and brisk cool temperatures, a Christmas Cactus can delight you with its colorful, vibrant blooms when everything else is dormant and hidden away. A suitable plant for beginners and expert gardeners alike, this tropical succulent can thrive in winter and produce showy flowers just in time for the Christmas holiday. 

While this succulent will require more water and light than traditional drought-hardy desert cacti, the overall care needs are minimal. Always protect your plant from exposure to direct sunlight to protect it from leaf burns. And a humidity tray filled with rocks under your pot will keep the plant properly hydrated.

Yeah, Houseplants for Christmas Are a Thing Now

Who knew you could enjoy a “cactus” at Christmas time? We did! Learn more about houseplant care by clicking one of the articles below, or head on over to our main houseplant care tips page for full access to EVERYTHING. After your head is crammed with houseplant knowledge, make sure you have all the necessary care tools to get you started.

Comment below or let us know your thoughts and feedback here. Houseplants are how we make life beautiful! 

Photo of author
Sara Trimble
Sara Trimble was the lady who could kill a cactus. Today, she’s the fun and fabulous expert plant mom who rocks at growing the coolest, trickiest plants. Her favorites to grow are orchids, roses, succulents, and luscious vines. Sara has grown – and killed – hundreds of plants and she shares her green-thumb successes and failures to help other plant murderers discover correct plant care. In her spare time, she raises four kids, two dogs, and a husband.

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