A Christmas cactus is one of my very favorite holiday plants. Pops of unexpected color bloom from alien-like tendrils that creep and drape over the plant. These are attractive plants to have all year, but the real magic comes from when they bloom. There are a few specific steps you can take to ensure that you get the best show from this showstopper. This guide also applies to Thanksgiving and Easter Cacti, as long as you tweak the schedule to accommodate for the different flowering times.
Many of the plants that are commonly called and sold as Christmas cacti, are in fact not true Christmas cacti. There are similar looking plants that bloom at Thanksgiving, Christmas, or Easter. Whether you have a Thanksgiving cactus (Schlumbergera truncata), a true Christmas cactus (Schlumbergera x Buckleyi), or an Easter cactus (Hatiora gaertneri), the care instructions are the same, with an adjusted schedule. The best way to tell them apart is when they bloom (near the date of the holiday they are named for), but you can also tell by the leaves: Christmas and Easter cacti have more rounded leaves and Thanksgiving cacti have pointy leaves. The Easter cactus also has more star-shaped flowers that look quite different from the Schlumbergeras.
Proper year-round care will ensure that your Christmas cactus is healthy enough to thrive and bloom, so let’s start with care basics:
Caring for Christmas Cacti
Choosing a Christmas Cactus
As always when buying a new plant, select one that looks healthy and shows no signs of disease. When choosing a Christmas cactus, it is also important to pick one that is in the appropriate stage of dormancy so that it will be ready to flower for the holidays.
If you are buying a Christmas cactus after October, choose one with visible buds on it. If you are buying one before October, pick one that does not have any buds or blooms.
Soil and Fertilizing
Plant your Christmas cactus inside a well-draining pot in a soil mix made especially for succulents and cacti.
Fertilize with a balanced fertilizer in the spring and summer. Do not fertilize in the fall, as this will hinder its ability to bloom.
Christmas cacti need humidity, which can be hard to come by indoors as the air is often very dry, particularly during the winter. To make sure that your Christmas cactus is getting the humidity that it loves, water it often enough that the soil never dries out (about two or three times per week) and spritz regularly with water from a spray bottle.
You can also make an easy DIY humidity tray to keep Christmas cacti happy when they are in a dry environment.
You can tell if you are overwatering a Christmas cactus if the buds fall off before they bloom. If this happens, reduce watering and misting. Christmas cacti will need significantly less water during their dormant phase (more on that at the end of this post!).
Generally speaking, Christmas cacti do best located in a bright room with lots of indirect sunlight. In the summertime they can be moved outdoors and placed in a shady spot, and in the fall Christmas cacti need twelve hours of darkness per day, so set them somewhere that does not get much artificial light after the sun goes down.
Christmas cacti take well to propagating, so it is easy to get lots of plants from just one starter plant.
Simply cut off a piece of the stem and stick it into a small pot filled with soil. After a week or two, it will develop roots and begin to grow on its own. For more detailed instructions on propagating, see this article.
How to Promote Blooming
In addition to proper year-round care, there are a few tips and tricks to getting a stubborn Christmas cactus to bloom. Follow these steps starting in the fall and continuing in winter, and watch as your Christmas cactus gives you a beautiful display of vibrant flowers.
Beginning in October, water your Christmas cactus much less frequently. Once every four to six weeks is all it needs during this time of dormancy. When you see buds begin to form, go back to your regular watering schedule.
Provide Enough Light and Darkness
During the fall and early winter, Christmas cacti need twelve hours of dark and twelve hours of indirect sunlight each day.
Keep Christmas cacti somewhere cool—around 50-60 degrees F—and away from heat vents, radiators, and fireplaces.