Christmas Cactus (Schlumbergera) Care Guide

Ed Wike
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Christmas Cactus Overview

Christmas Cactus comes in an assortment of shapes and sizes and is one of the easiest cacti to grow indoors. The plant is native to Brazil, despite the name, and blooms between Thanksgiving and Christmas.

Because it is unable to withstand freezing temps, it is important that Christmas Cactus cannot be left outside during the winter months.

Christmas Cactus flowers can range in color from red to pink, purple, orange or white, and can be upright or hanging. The flowers can even be variegated, which means they are banded with white or green striping. Although some blossoms will look this way, most Christmas Cactus plants produce white flowers with red or pink veining.

Christmas Cactus thrives in humid bathrooms and bedrooms, and makes a fantastic indoor plant for any room in your home.

Types of Christmas Cactus

Most everyone is familiar with these holiday plants, but do you really know how to care for them? Christmas cactus plants also go by the name of Zygocactus Schlumberger. They belong to the Cactaceae family and do well in small spaces, such as desktops and windowsills. They are quite popular due to their ability to bloom beautifully. In fact, they are one of the few indoor plants that can bloom after only a few months, so many people buy them in the fall with the intention of having a few months of beautiful blooms to brighten the time from Thanksgiving to Christmas.

Plants such as flower begins that bloom once a year. Once you plant them, they bloom, and then they die. This is not true of Schlumbergera plants. These plants remain evergreen. They may stay small if given less light, but they will still be green, and they can bloom again, typically every Christmas.

All Christmas cacti are actually hybrids of two other plants – Schlumbergera russelliana and Schlumbergera truncata. The most common species of Christmas cactus is Schlumbergera truncata. They are usually green, and they are the ones that usually have natural red and white striped flowers when they bloom.

Christmas Cactus Care

If you love Christmas cactus and want to know how to take care of it, here are some tips and information that will help.

Activity:

Christmas cactus is a winter care plant. It prefers slightly cool temperatures and moderately high humidity. In fact, it does best when temperatures are kept consistently cool.

Water:

The perfect water level should be one that allows the potting medium to just barely dry out between watering. Christmas cactus loves a soaking, but then the soil should be given a chance to almost dry out.

Light:

Because of the way this plant is grown, and the fact that it requires cool temperatures, indirect light is best. The bright side of this is that they tend to thrive in darker areas. If you must keep it in a spot with more direct light, place it where the light rarely hits it directly. They don't like bright light.

Temperature:

Christmas cactus prefers a very consistent slightly cool temperature. At the beginning of the day, the temperature should be kept around 70 degrees and slowly allowed to drop to about 40 degrees at night. The temperature should be held steadily at night, and while the plant does best with moderate humidity, misting is not necessary as long as the soil doesn't dry out. I like to think of Christmas cactus as being not as picky about their water but very picky about their temperature.

Soil:

Temperature

Christmas cacti (ghost plant, Thanksgiving cactus) are epiphytes that hail from tropical rainforests of Brazil and Southern Mexico. In their native environment, they grow attached to trees and receive direct sunlight from above. In the wild, they bloom only once a year on Christmas. After that, they die.

These cacti are for the most part very hearty if they are given proper care.

However, improper care can lead to poor growth or death. For this reason, our Christmas cactus care guide will help you select and care for your Christmas cactus happily and help it attain longevity.

First of all, in order for your Christmas cactus to perform well, it needs to be placed in bright indirect light.

Full sun, in this case, is not a good idea since it might burn the cactus and thus the flowers would turn out to be brown and not white.

It is important to note, however, that excessive light can also be harmful for Christmas cacti. Long bright sunny days can easily kill the plant.

So, if you are living in a place which is very sunny, be cautious about how you maintain the light exposure for the Christmas cacti.

There should not be any need to put the plant in front of the window that receives the maximum amount of sunlight every day.

Light

Christmas Cactus is a South American plant that requires high light to thrive. If flowers are produced, they will be white. If you are diligent in providing the right regimen of light, water, and temperature, the plant can be a wonderful bloomer and provider of interesting color.

The plant should be placed in an east or south facing window where it will receive indirect morning light. The Christmas Cactus needs 8 to 10 hours of light each day. If you will not be home in the morning to give the Christmas Cactus the light it requires, place it close to a timer that will give it 8 hours of light.

Your Christmas Cactus will not produce flowers if it does not receive sufficient light. Unfortunately, too much light will also prevent flowering.

Water

When you know how to care for your Christmas Cactus properly you’ll enjoy it for years to come.

Care must be exercised and Christmas Cactus thrives in an environment where temperatures range between 64-75 degrees. If temperatures go above or below the suggested range the plant will stop flowering or produce black or dark brown discolored small flowers.

An area that is well lit for at least six hours a day is ideal. If you have an artificial light then the plant should be placed no further than three inches away from the bulb. If there is natural light coming in, the plant should receive direct sunlight for at least two hours per day.

It’s important to change as much of the water as possible when replanting. Otherwise, your plant may suffer from a condition called salt burn which causes corrosion or pitting. You need to flush out the salts in the soil as much as possible when you transplant.

To do this, use a watering can that will allow you to water the plant until water flows from the drainage holes. Next, water the plant until water runs out the holes on the bottom. At this point, it’s critical to change the water and mist the plant. Oxygen is important to allow the plant to breathe and it should take a full 15 minutes to de-salt the soil.

Soil

If your cactus is in the ground, it will likely continue to grow until the end of the season.

If your cactus is in a pot, it will stop growing after some time, and it will stop producing flowers if the pot is too big for it. If it has stopped growing, don’t worry. Just prop the pot up and make sure that the soil doesn’t get too dry during the winter. You may want to take your cactus out of the pot to make it easier to water.

Water Requirements:

The most important thing is not to let your cactus get too dry, or to let it stand in a puddle of water.

Although the water requirements for your Schlumbergera may differ, it is important that you keep the cactus moderately damp during the winter months.

If it gets too dry, you can always look at the base of the stems for little openings that might be breathing holes.

Put your finger on it to see if you feel water on the inside.

Keeping it damp for the first four months of the winter will help you keep your plant dormant.

If you do it during the warmer months, the roots will not be able to handle the stress, so be careful not to over water.

Cactus are very prone to root rot, so be careful not to overwater.

Fertilizer

The exact fertilizer recommendations will vary from brand to brand, but almost all, if not all, commercial Christmas cactus fertilizer will follow the same basic formula as the all-purpose fertilizer in this book. Most commercial cactus fertilizer will be a granular "stick" form, comprised of two numbers. The higher number will be the % of nitrogen in the fertilizer, and the lower number will be the % of phosphorous.

Most Christmas cactus fertilizer will be between 0-10-0 and 0-15-0.

This fertilizer formula will provide your plant with approximately 1/2 of the nutrients it needs. In most cases, it will not be enough to sustain the plant during the winter months. This is why it’s a good idea to follow the directions on the fertilizer packaging, and feed your plant once or twice a month.

When to fertilize Christmas cacti?

Christmas cacti are mainly fertilized during the fall months. At this time, you will want to fertilize your Christmas cacti with a balanced fertilizer at a strength of half the strength recommended on the package. About once a month throughout the fall is sufficient.

Christmas cacti that are sitting on a tree or in a bush will also receive a good amount of nutrients and minerals from the leaves. Be sure not to fertilize during this time. Feeding your plant regular at this time will stunt its growth.

Repotting

Once your Christmas Cactus (Schlumbergera) plant has grown completely, you will want to repot it. For optimal results, you should repot it once a year. Christmas Cactus plants are easy to care for, and repotting is simple. Repot your Christmas cactus once the roots from the plant exceed the container. If you see roots popping through the drain holes, you can be sure the plant needs repotting.

If you are interested in propagating your Christmas Cactus plant, follow these simple steps. Purchase a Christmas cactus pot and a terracotta pot. Remove the growing medium from the old container and remove any dead foliage. Take care to leave approximately 1/2 inch of soil at the top. Place that soil in a container. Fill the new pot with stones and add a drainage hole. Place the soil and plant into the container. Remember to take care not to damage the plant roots. Place the pot in an area where it will have plenty of indirect sunlight. Before placing it in the container you will want to soak the roots with water.

Pruning

There are several types of cacti that are generally referred to as Christmas cacti. They include the Schlumbergera truncata (the most common type), the Schlumbergera or chipsi, the Schlumbergera x buckleyi, and the Schlumbergera bridgesii. Schlumbergera represents a subgroup of Cactaceae with the word Schlumbergera derived after the name of the species growing in Philadelphia (Schlumbergera x buckleyi, fruiting in 1851). This subgroup was designated by the American taxonomist Nathaniel Lord Britton in 1922.

OWNERS OF THIS SPECIES OF CACTUS SHOULD NOT PRUNE THEIR PLANTS. Pruning this plant will remove the tiny plantlets that will form next year's production of flower buds.

Fragrant flowers bloom on the Christmas cactus year after year from November to January if the plant is kept at temperatures between 60°F and 70°F. Even if you move the plant outdoors for the summer, you should keep it indoors during the fall and winter months. There is a time when repotting is appropriate and that is when the plant comes out of the bloom cycle. This happens after the flower has finished blooming. The plant will shed its old leaves and you will see tiny buds starting to form on the plant. The soil should be rich and loose so make sure it is well draining.

Propagation

A Christmas cactus is a very useful plant for gardeners that want to get a flower that requires almost no care. The Schlumbergera genus (which includes Christmas cactus) is extremely diverse in its geography, and different types of Christmas cactus have evolved to have different needs. The most common species of Christmas cactus, particularly the one with bright red blooms, is Schlumbergera truncata. These types of cactus are native to Brazil, and require a lot more care to bloom. On the other side, there is the cultivar known as Schlumbergera russelliana (also called fancy leaf cactus) that thrives in the average household and requires little effort.

An average Christmas cactus is a small plant, about 3-4 inches (8-10 cm) high when it flowers. The plant has a striped stem and its leaves are small and relatively thick. The cactus blooms very early and it is also very slow, which makes it perfect as a Christmas gift. Thriving in low temperatures, the plant will either bloom in the summer or right after it’s brought inside the house.

Blooming

The Christmas cactus, which is more notoriously known as Schlumbergera, requires the sunniest window in your house and the most amount of light your indoor location can give. Some may be hesitant to bring their plants indoors during the colder months. If you are one of them, then you are probably not aware that this plant actually blooms more abundantly during the winter time. They can be moved outdoors in spring, but never put your plant in direct sunlight at that time. The heat will scorch and wilts the already declining plant.

Christmas cacti is a plant that should be brought indoors or taken care of in a greenhouse or a protected area for a couple of months starting in early November. Start moving your plants at least 2 weeks before Thanksgiving. This gives them time to adjust to the change in venue. If you're worried about the change of temperature, move it to a cooler room and set the temperature to a warmer one gradually. Christmas cacti can tolerate a wide range of temperatures. Bringing it to a warmer-than-usual living room gives it a chance to open up its buds in time for the holidays.

Problems

Most Christmas cacti have it hard enough to live long enough to bloom for the holiday season. However, if you care for yours properly, it will continue growing and blooming each year for years to come.

The main problems faced by Christmas cacti are pests, draught, and temperature shock. Each one of these can be avoided or managed if you are conscientious enough to do so.

In most cases, pests are the biggest cause of problems with Christmas cacti. The most common pest is the mealybug. If you check your Christmas cactus regularly, you can easily control mealybugs by squishing them with your fingers. Be warned, they may leave a sticky residue. You can also use a cotton swab or a Q-tip dipped in rubbing (isopropyl) alcohol to remove them. Very early infestations might be treated by a strong spray of water. However, you must be careful to not wet the soil too much.

Draught is another common killer of cacti. In the wild, this is prevented by surrounding plants and rocks. You can simulate this by keeping your plant away from drafty windows. If you don’t have an alternate source of light, you can also prop up your plant with books. For example, place a book on either side of the plant and move it up as the plant grows.

Growing Problems

Schlumbergera often blooms two or three times annually and then dies. At this point, it is cut back to the bottom of the stem. The stem will begin to grow smaller leaves and a few months later bloom again. If you don’t want the plant to die, you can just snip off the old bloom and plant it in the dish garden where it will continue to grow and bloom.

Your Christmas cactus will look best in a brightly lit window. Keep the soil evenly moist, but not soggy, and water thoroughly the roots once a week.

After the plant blooms, you should give your plant a month to four weeks of rest.

Try not to fertilize during that time, since it’s in an inactive state. Once your cactus has rested, you can resuscitate it with a good dose of fertilizer.

Pests

Unfortunately, Christmas cactus disease and pest problems are more common than not. Their native environment is the tropical rain forest of South America. While Texas has a much different environment, the Christmas cactus does well outside or indoors, provided it is given the right conditions.

Overwatering and underwatering are the most common mistakes made by plant owners. For optimum plant health, use a general purpose potting mix for indoor plants. A Christmas cactus has large tuberous roots, so it is important to provide a large enough container that will accommodate them.

Pot your plant in a container one to two sizes larger. Be sure that the container has adequate drainage. Mix some coarse sand to the soil to improve drainage.

For best results, feed your plants every two to four weeks with a balanced liquid houseplant fertilizer.

Underwatering is caused by not giving your plants enough water. It's easier to overwater than underwater, but, if the plant is underwater too long, it may suffer root damage. If your plants get too much water, leaves may become limp. As a precaution, plant your plants in a container with some air pockets to avoid water stress.

Diseases

Christmas Cactus (Schlumbergera) is not just for Christmas anymore. While their flowers are still popular, many people choose to keep the plant through the year and enjoy the blooms in their homes all year round.

Christmas Cactus is relatively resilient, but it does run into a few problems, including bacterial rot, dead or rotted roots, and stem collapse. The reasons for these problems can often be linked back to environmental issues and providing the plants with proper care.

FAQs

About Christmas Cacti What Is a Christmas Cactus?

The Christmas cactus is also known as Schlumbergera. There are many different species, hybrids, and cultivars. It is a flowering cactus, which is a member of the family Cactaceae. The Schlumbergera family is a large group of tropical flowering cacti, some of which grow as tall as trees. The Christmas cactus is the one that gives us all the holiday cheer!

Where Do Christmas Cacti Grow?

Christmas cacti are native to Brazil and they thrive in the wild an in domestic gardens. They are not frost hardy at all and need protection from the cold. This cactus can be grown as an indoor plant and can also be a houseplant outdoors in containers should the climate be warm enough.

Schlumbergeras like well-drained soil that has a neutral pH. Moist but not waterlogged soil is best for this cactus. They grow in warm climates with many hours of sunlight, so they should not be in direct sunlight. Watering should be during the soil, not on the cactus. That means that the top of the soil should dry out before watering again.

How Do I Avoid a Disease on My Christmas Cactus?