How To Grow And Take Care Of A Christmas Cactus

The Christmas cactus (Schlumbergera bridgessii) belongs to a unique tropical family that also includes the Easter and Thanksgiving cacti, dwelling among the ranks of Norfolk Island pine trees and poinsettias as famous winter flora. While the Christmas cactus may appear to be an unconventional holiday plant, it is bursting with bright blossoms, making it an enjoyable sight in the dead of winter. The most popular type in this genus, the Christmas cactus, is a hybrid plant, blooming in the late fall or early winter and growing reasonably quickly, reaching 2 feet in around two years.

According to Rural Sprout, all varieties of Christmas cactus are tropical in origin and can be kept indoors at any time of year as a houseplant until the late spring or summer, when they can be replanted or moved outside. Your cactus will bloom at the start of winter — even in late November — if given proper care and can live for decades. And while the name may be somewhat intimidating, the Christmas cactus is a simple to grow, all-year plant. In fact, this lovely winter-flowering houseplant would be a wonderful addition to any home, so if you want to amaze your guests with a stunning flowering plant, this is it.

How to use the Christmas cactus

The Christmas cactus is mostly used as a houseplant inside. It is frequently found in hanging pots or baskets due to the elegant drooping of its foliage. You can find Christmas cactus plants in garden centers and supermarkets during the holiday season, but for the widest selection, go online to specialized retailers. Most botanists debate their true inclusion in the cacti family, with some debating that the Christmas cactus isn't a real cactus as it doesn't thrive in drought-like environments and needs constant watering. On the other hand, its name says otherwise, despite its lack of sharp spines.

In origin, Christmas cactus plants are forest cacti that thrive in tropical rainforests and attach themselves to trees in the wild. According to Learn About Nature, these succulent plants, unlike desert inhabitants, call the Brazilian rainforest home and, like orchids and air plants, thrive on trees there, taking water and nutrients from the air, rain, and leaf detritus. As a result, they require different growing circumstances than desert cacti. They prefer a lot of humidity and need to be kept out of direct sunshine.

How to grow the Christmas cactus plant

This festive cactus is a little picky when it comes to temperature, so it's best to plant it in a container or hanging basket if you live in a cool location so you can bring it inside when the weather drops below 50 degrees Fahrenheit. As mentioned, the Christmas cactus requires a lot of humidity, especially if it's being cultivated in the dry conditions of a heated house in the winter. Signalsaz recommended spraying the plant regularly or laying a pebble tray filled with water beneath the pot to increase humidity.

The Christmas cactus enjoys warm temperatures between 70 and 80 degrees Fahrenheit during its prime growing months; April to September. However, once the buds are set, the plant needs low nighttime temperatures — between 55 and 65 degrees Fahrenheit — and a minimum of 13 hours of darkness to produce buds and flowers. This plant dislikes sudden drafts and will drop its buds or blossoms if exposed to them, so make sure to keep it away from frequently opened doors and drafty windows. When growing the Christmas cactus, use a potting media that drains effectively, such as a mix of potting soil, perlite, and orchid bark. In warmer climes, light shade or early morning sun is preferable for growing Christmas cactus outside, but a sunnier setting is better in the fall and winter. However, beware of direct, intense sunlight — it might bleach the plant's leaves.

How to care for the Christmas cactus

When caring for Christmas cactus outside, you'll need to water it when the soil is dry — but not bone dry, Petit Garden Center advised. The plant should also not be overwatered, especially in the winter, as it can cause it to rot. Furthermore, a regular pest check is required for Christmas cactus outdoor care, so keep an eye out for mealybugs, which are small sap-sucking pests that like cool, dark environments. You can remove them with a toothpick or a cotton swab dipped in alcohol or regularly spray them with insecticidal soap spray or neem oil.

Early in the summer, trim the Christmas cactus by removing two or three segments. Trimming your plant regularly will encourage full, bushy growth. Feed your holiday cactus with a half-strength and diluted water-soluble stabilized fertilizer once a month during the early spring and summer months. However, you should stop feeding once you see flower buds forming, which generally happens in late summer or early fall. You can restart monthly feedings after the plant blooms.

Christmas cactus varieties

As per Jacobs Christmas, there are two more plants known as holiday cacti besides the Schlumbergera bridgessii or the Christmas cactus. They all have similar appearances, although the shape of their leaves differs slightly. Unfortunately, they are also frequently mislabeled in garden centers.

  • "Thanksgiving Cactus" (Schlumbergera truncata): This plant's showy flowers bloom late in the fall, around Thanksgiving, hence its name. The edges of its leaves have highly sharp and claw-shaped projections.

  • "Easter Cactus" (Rhipsalidopsis gaetneri): This early-blooming cultivar has small bristles on the edges of its rounded leaf segments and starts revealing star-shaped flower buds in February and flowers from March to May.

And besides the purple-brown Christmas cactus, this variety includes a few other cacti types that boast different colors:

  • "Kris-Kringle": This Christmas cactus type has the most vibrant red blossoms, but it blooms early and may not persist till the holidays.

  • "Thor Britt": With white blooms with a hint of pink in the center of the petals and pink stamens, this cactus type is an upright variety rather than a trailing plant variety.

  • "Peach Parfait": The orange, peachy-colored flowers with purple stamens appear later in the season on this aptly cactus.

Is Christmas cactus toxic?

While characterized as a non-toxic plant, some people may have adverse reactions from handling it, Garden Plants said. For example, it can induce urticaria — swollen, pale red pimples, with symptoms such as sneezing and eye itching. In some cases, they induced swollen eyes and asthmatic dyspnea — or chest tightness — when handled. Regular contact with the Christmas cactus can also cause rhinoconjunctivitis in humans. Without having a cold or flu, the case can exhibit symptoms such as sneezing, runny or blocked nose.

Christmas cactus can also be harmful to dogs and cats, and it can cause gastric irritation when ingested. It can produce nausea (with or without blood), vomiting (with or without blood), diarrhea (with or without blood), depression, and anorexia after intake. In addition, this herb causes ataxia — a type of brain injury — in cats when consumed. However, these symptoms are modest and only last till the animal digests the food, although it is risky for elderly animals.

How to repot Christmas cactus

The Christmas cactus should be repotted every 1-2 years in the spring or early summer to maintain humidity, Sublime Succulents recommended. Likewise, pruning the Christmas cactus after it has bloomed is an excellent way to get the best shape and increase flowering uniformity. Make sure to transfer the root with care and without disturbing it during the repotting process. Repotting a Christmas cactus can be challenging, so take your time.

  • Look for a commercial bromeliad or succulent potting mixture that is lightweight and well-drained. Alternatively, you can use a combination of 1/3 ordinary potting soil and 1/3 sand.

  • Repot the Christmas cactus into a pot that is only slightly larger than the current container, and make sure the container's bed has a drainage hole. Although the Christmas cactus enjoy wetness, it will quickly decay if the roots are not given enough oxygen.

  • Remove the plant and the surrounding soil ball from its pot and gently separate the roots. If the potting mix is compacted, use a little water to gently wash it away from the roots.

  • In the new container, replant the Christmas cactus so that the top of the root ball is about 1 inch below the rim. Use the fresh potting mix to fill in around the roots, and remove any possible air pockets by lightly patting the soil.

  • Water it sparingly. Place the plant in a shady spot for two or three days before starting its regular care routine.

How to make your Christmas cactus bloom again

Christmas cactus plants bloom either in the fall when the weather is chilly and the days are short or in the winter during the holiday season. However, Master Gardener Association said you can make your plant get flowers in both these seasons for a magnificent holiday view. To make your plant bloom again, begin the process 8 to 10 weeks before Christmas. Once your plant is established, it should flower in 4 to 6 weeks.

Place the Christmas cactus plant in a room with nighttime temperatures of 50 to 55 degrees Fahrenheit and allow it at least 13 hours of continuous darkness each night for the greatest results. During the day, provide it with bright, indirect light. It's ideal to have a cool basement with windows or an extra room that isn't used at night. However, you can still obtain blooms if you don't have a cool area in your house: Simply give it at least 15 hours of absolute darkness each night. Finally, cover the plant with a large box or move it in and out of a closet until the colorful flower buds bloom. As soon as buds start to form at the tip of the branches, move the Christmas cactus to its holiday spot and enjoy the display.