A Christmas cactus can add a pop of cheerful colour to your indoor plant collection. Here’s how to care for your Christmas cactus and keep it blooming during the cold winter months.
The Christmas cactus is one of my favourite holiday plants. Pops of unexpected colour 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. Those showy flowers bring joy and colour to colder seasons when we need them the most.
If you’ve been gifted a Christmas cactus or picked one up at the grocery store, you may be wondering how to best care for the plant and how to encourage Christmas cactus blooms. Well, with the right care, Christmas cacti can live up to 100 years! Most live for decades and will happily become one of your staple houseplants.
There are a few specific steps you can take to ensure that you get the best show from your plants. This guide also applies to Thanksgiving and Easter Cacti, as long as you tweak the schedule to accommodate the different flowering times.
I get a lot of comments about generalizing Schlumbergera as Christmas Cacti and folks are truly very passionate about properly identifying the different species. Latin names are wonderful for ensuring that there is clarity so that the plants can be properly cared for.
In this care guide, the instructions are the same for Schlumbergera truncata and S. x Buckley but I use the common term Christmas cactus so these tips can easily be found and used.
What’s the Difference between a Christmas Cactus, Thanksgiving Cactus, and Easter Cactus?
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 but 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.
How to Care for a Christmas Cactus
Proper year-round care will ensure that your Christmas cactus is healthy enough to thrive and bloom, so let’s start with care basics.
When to Buy a Christmas Cactus
As always when buying a new plant, select one that looks healthy and shows no signs of disease. When choosing a plant, 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 one 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.
The Best Soil for Christmas Cactus
Plant them into a well-draining pot in a soil mix made especially for succulents and cacti.
Homemade Succulent and Cactus Potting Mix Recipe
The best potting soil for a Christmas cactus is one specifically designed for succulents. This guarantees that it will have the proper aeration. The best soil for them is made up of light, airy materials with excellent drainage.
It should be noted that despite using cacti and succulent potting soil, a Christmas cactus is not your typical succulent. Rather than coming from a dry and arid region, Christmas cacti are actually native to Brazilian rainforests. This means they have different watering needs than other cacti. More on that in a second!
How and When to Fertilize
Once the plant has finished flowering for the winter, it’s time to grab some Christmas cactus fertilizer. Use a balanced fertilizer throughout the spring and summer. You can use my fertilizer recipe for houseplants, as it has just the right nutrients for potted plants. Fertilize once or twice a month.
Once you hit fall, stop all fertilizing. This will hinder its ability to bloom and you will be left with no blossoms come Christmas.
How to Water Holiday Cacti
Since they’re native to Brazilian rainforests, Christmas cacti need humidity during their growing season. This 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 and spritz regularly with water from a spray bottle.
Water whenever the plant begins to feel dry. The plant should never be bone dry between waterings, but should partially dry out.
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!).
Light Needs for Christmas Cactus
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. 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.
Limp Christmas Cactus
Sometimes, you may find that your Christmas cactus appears limp and wilted. If this happens, it either means it is getting too much direct sunlight or not enough water.
If you suspect that water is the culprit, immediately give it a healthy drink of water. Check on the soil every few days and water so the soil stays slightly damp. However, you don’t want it to be too wet as the plant doesn’t like soggy roots.
If you notice that in addition to the wilted leaves, there may be some scorch marks, the sun may be the problem. Move the plant out of any direct sun and make sure it gets only indirect light. It’s especially important to ensure it doesn’t sit in the hot afternoon sun.
Christmas Cactus Propagation
If you want to spread some Christmas joy, Christmas cacti take well to propagating. Luckily, 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. Learn more about propagation and how to do it here!
How to Get a Christmas Cactus to Bloom
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 continue on into the winter. Watch as your Christmas cactus gives you a beautiful display of vibrant flowers!
1. Reduce Watering
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.
2. 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.
3. Keep Cool
Keep Christmas cacti somewhere cool—around 50-60 degrees F—and away from heat vents, radiators, and fireplaces.
Enjoy your Christmas cactus and its wonderful blooms!