Christmas cactus care outside

Do you want a really cool blooming plant for the holiday season? Well look no further. Christmas Cactus, aka Holiday Cactus, is the one for you. Here’s how to grow Christmas Cactus during it’s blooming period and after. It’s a long lasting houseplant which I happen to find very attractive.

First off, let’s get a bit technical for those of you who geek out on all things plant like me. My scarlet Christmas Cactus that you see here and in the video is actually a Thanksgiving (or Crab) Cactus. It was labeled as a CC when I bought it and that’s how it’s commonly sold in the trade. Now days you may see them labeled as Holiday Cactus. Regardless of which one you have, you care for these epiphytic cacti in the same manner.

You can see the notches on the leaves of this white Thanksgiving Cactus. Regardless, it’s being sold as a Christmas Cactus – it’s all about the marketing!

Both the Thanksgiving and the Christmas Cactus fall under the genus Schlumbergera which I learned as Schlumbergia years ago. The Thanksgiving Cactus has little spine-like notches coming off it’s leaves (just like a crab claw hence that common name) whereas the leaves of the Christmas Cactus are smoother. The Thanksgiving Cactus is timed to flower in November/December whereas it’s December/January for the Christmas Cactus.

How to grow Christmas or Thanksgiving (aka Holiday) Cactus:

Size

Christmas Cacti are most commonly sold in 4″ or 6″ pots. I’ve also seen them in 6″, 8″ & 10″ hanging baskets. Quite a few years ago I saw one in a greenhouse that was really big – over 6′ wide. Yes, they can be a long lasting houseplant!

Hanging pots in grower’s greenhouse.

Light

They like & do best in bright, natural light; a medium to high light exposure. Keep them out of direct sun because their fleshy leaves will burn. Although they don’t do well in full sun, they do need bright light to bloom & stay looking good throughout the year.

Water

These are epiphytic cacti & differ from the desert cacti that I’m surrounded by here in Tucson. In their natural rainforest habits, they grow on other plants & rocks; not in soil. Their roots need to breathe.

Give yours a good drink of water, let it all thoroughly drain out of the pot, & let it go dry before you water it again. You don’t want to keep the roots constantly moist or they’ll eventually rot out.

How often you water depends on your temps, the exposure it’s in & the pot size. Houseplant watering 101 gives you a general idea. I watered my Christmas Cactus growing outdoors in Santa Barbara every week (yes, they do grow outdoors year round in temperate climates) in the warmer weather & sometimes not at all in the winter, depending on if we had rain or not. Indoors I watered every 2-4 weeks.

When your Holiday Cactus is blooming, water it a bit more often. After flowering back off on the watering in winter. You can pick it back up a bit more often in spring & summer if need be.

Oh, these violets blooms are pretty.

Temperature

In our homes, they prefer warmer daytime temps (65 – 75) & cooler at night. They actually need cooler temps when setting their buds.

Santa Barbara winter temps could dip into the low 40’s or high 30’s & mine were fine. If yours has been growing outdoors for the summer, bring it in before the temps dip. They can’t take a freeze & definitely not snow.

It’s Nov 21 as I’m writing this & my Holiday Cactus is already half bloomed out. The temps are currently in the low to mid-80’s so I’m putting mine out at night (currently around 55F) to try & prolong the bloom a bit. Just know that the warmer your house is, the quicker the blooming period will go. Keep them away from any heaters, & conversely, any cold drafts.

Humidity

These are tropical cacti so they prefer some humidity. Our homes tend to be on the dry side so you may have to up the ante a bit with the humidity.

If mine starts to look not as robust & a bit on the dry side, I’ll put it on a saucer filled with pebbles & water. Be sure to keep the bottom of the pot out of the water because you don’t want any rotting.

I used these bi-colored Holiday Cacti, along with the other plants, to make a make a festive mixed garden.

Fertilizing

I’ve never fertilized any of mine. I would always amend them with worm compost & organic compost every spring. They always flowered fine. Here in the desert where it’s much hotter & drier, I’ll amend mine again in mid-summer.

Yours may not need it but if you like to fertilize, you can use a balanced liquid houseplant fertilizer (such as 10-10-10) in early spring, early summer & mid-summer.

My friend used an all-around orchid fertilizer (20-10-20) on his Christmas Cactus once in spring & then again in summer & they looked great. I have quite a few orchids so I may try using that in summer if need be.

Soil

As I said, Holiday Cacti grow on other plants, rocks & bark – they don’t grow in soil. In nature they feed off leaf matter & debris. This means they like a very porous mix that also has some richness to it.

I use mostly succulent & cactus mix (a very chunky local mix) along with compost & coco coir mixed in. This environmentally friendly alternative to peat moss is pH neutral, increases nutrient holding capacity & improves aeration.

A bench full of them – want one or two?

Pruning

The only reasons for pruning would be if yours needed taming due to spreading over time or if you want to propagate it. Just be sure to cut off whole leaf sections which are easy to identify.

Propagation

Like most succulents, a Christmas Cactus is very easy to propagate. You can do it by leaf or stem cuttings as well as by division.

As you’ll see in the video, mine is actually 3 plants growing in 1 pot. I could easily divide them by pulling the individual plants apart or by cutting the root ball carefully with a knife into 3 separate plants. I’d plant them in the succulent/compost/coco coir mix.

You can take individual leaf cuttings by pruning the terminal leaf sections off. I prefer to twist them off whether it’s a single leaf or a few sections which to me constitutes a stem. I then heal off the single leaves or stems for a week or so. Into straight succulent & cactus mix they go (with about 1/2″ of the end sticking in) & they start to root in a couple of weeks. I repot them after about a month or so.

I find propagation is best done 2 or 3 months after flowering.

This peach is another lovely color, especially if you like your plant colors on the softer side.

Pests/Problems

Mine have only gotten a touch of mealybugs (they look like little specks of cotton) which simply I hosed off. They’re also prone to spider mites.

Root rots can be a problem if you keep them too wet. The plant starts to whither, wilts & then eventually dies. A very good reason not to overwater this plant.

Flowering

Holiday Cacti, like Poinsettias, are photoperiodic. They require equal or longer periods of darkness to bloom again.

So, they need 12 – 14 hours of complete darkness per day. Start this reduction in light approximately 8 weeks before you want it to bloom.

Keep them drier; this will help force them into dormancy. Water them anywhere from every 3-6 weeks depending on the temps, the mix it’s in & the size & type of pot it’s planted in.

You want to keep the temps between 50 & 65 degrees F. 50-55 degrees is best at night. If your temps are warmer, they’ll require a longer period of darkness.

It can take a bit of effort to move yours into a closet or basement every night but perhaps you have a spare room which naturally has these conditions. After the buds start to appear, then you can move them back to a bright spot, resume the care you were previously giving it and enjoy the beautiful flowers.

If the buds on your Christmas Cactus are falling off before they open, it could be because it’s too wet or it’s gone through some type of environmental stress (temperature fluctuations, too much sun, cold drafts, etc).

I’ve seen the flowers in red, violet, white, peach, & gold. By the way, mine that I’ve grown outdoors bloom on their own. Mother Nature handles the darkness!

These are very popular holiday plants because of their flowers. They get covered in masses of blooms like mine that you see here.

Good To Know

Don’t rush to repot your Christmas Cactus. It’ll bloom better if slightly pot bound. Every 3-5 years is best, depending on how fast it’s growing. Repotting it a couple of months after bloom time is best.

If your Holiday Cactus is changing color, usually to a reddish hue, that means it’s stressed. Common causes are too much sun or too little water.

Water yours a bit more often when it’s flowering.

If you water one too often, plainly put, it’ll mush out.

Conversely, to little water will cause it to shrivel & change color.

You can get a Thanksgiving Cactus to bloom a bit later by keeping it cool – 50 to 55F. The flowers will open slower & last longer.

Spent flower blossoms can be removed by holding on to the leaf section & gently twisting them off.

Holiday Cactus are non-toxic to both cats & dogs. You & your pets can enjoy them with no worries. Here’s a post I did on houseplants & toxicity in regards to our furry loved ones.

My sweet rescue kitty Riley hanging out on my side patio with the Holiday Cactus. It’s a big plus that they’re safe for pets!

The care for Thanksgiving Cactus and Christmas Cactus is the same. The Thanksgiving Cactus blooms about 3-4 weeks earlier than the Christmas Cactus and is popular because some people want to get a jump on their Christmas flowers. I was also told by a grower that the Thanksgiving Cactus ships easier because it’s not as pendulous and the leaves tend not to break off. Hence, some just call them Holiday Cactus.

Whichever one you have, it makes an easy, long lasting houseplant. I think I need (want!) to get another one – how about you?

Happy gardening, Happy holidays,

PS: If you are looking for your own Christmas Cactus you can get a red one here.

Christmas Cactus Care

Christmas cactus are usually purchased in late fall and winter months already in bloom, or at least budded. When taking your Christmas cactus home, avoid extreme temperature changes as this may cause some buds to drop off. Place in a bright window for best results, and keep the soil slightly moist. There is no need to fertilize during the winter bloom period.

After the final blooms are spent, Christmas cactus need as much light as possible and prefer be kept on the cool side during the rest periods (February – March and July – August). When the flower buds start to show in fall, the plant should be moved to regular room temperature.

These cacti should be repotted every three to five years at the beginning of the growth period. Always use a light soil (commercial cactus soil is fine); it’s essential that the soil drain freely.

Year ’round Care

It is important to provide the correct amount of water, food and rest at the proper periods. Flowering will also depend on the length of daylight hours and the surrounding temperature.

February-March (resting period)

When flowering is over, the plant needs to rest. Water it sparingly, without letting the stems shrink. If possible, move the plant to a cool, bright location.

April-June (growing period)

Start to water more from the beginning of April. The winter period is over, and the cactus will start to grow again. New shoots will be clearly visible at the tip of each stem. Pot in April if needed, and then feed a couple of times over the next months. Use a standard cactus soil through which the water can easily drain. The roots are weak and will rot if the soil is too wet.

Once the weather warms, Christmas cactus can be placed outdoors in a bright area. Avoid direct sunlight which can sunburn the stems of some varieties. Bright dappled shade is ideal.

If you want to take cuttings, this is the best time of the year to do it. Propagation can be done easily by placing healthy stems with two to four segments in moist sand.

July-August (resting period)

Reduce watering, allowing soil to dry thoroughly between watering without allowing to shrivel.

September- October (budding period)

If you’ve put your cactus outdoors for summer, you can leave it out until the nights drop below 50 degrees (this period of cool nights and shortening days will encourage lots of flower buds). As soon as there is any sign of flower buds, start to increase watering again. The cactus must never lack water or be moved around too much while producing flowers; otherwise the buds can simply drop off the plant.

You should begin to see tiny, spherical buds forming at the tips in mid-fall. An old, large plant may benefit from a few fertilizer applications in September-October when buds are forming.

November-December (blooming period)

Enjoy your cactus for the holidays!

Common Problems

Problem: The cactus starts to shrivel in its rest period.

Diagnosis: It needs more water. Give it a good soak in a bowl of water or the sink, and then let it drain well after about half an hour.

Problem: Crown rot.

Diagnosis: This is a sign that the roots are rotting. The plant has either been over-watered or the soil mixture is wrong. The plant cannot survive for much longer, so take healthy cuttings and get new plants started.

Problem: The buds fall off.

Diagnosis: The plant has been moved too much or has had too little water during the time it sets its buds. Give it a little more TLC and see what happens. You may simply need to wait for the next bloom cycle to watch it display its beauty.

Try a Christmas Cactus this year! The plant you buy now may become tomorrow’s heirloom!

I have a question for you about my Christmas cactus. I made the mistake of putting it outdoors and the leaves are now whitening. What should I do?

Thanks much, Caitlin

Caitlin, it could be your Christmas cactus (Schlumbergera) is suffering from leaf scorch. Intense summer sunlight and excessive heat causes the leaves to fade or wilt. Christmas cactus prefer bright, indirect light. Place yours in a spot with high shade or morning sun and afternoon shade.

Now if your plants are in a shady spot that stays relatively cool, you may have a problem with mealy bugs. These pests are common on Christmas cactus and other houseplants. Take a close look at the white substance on your plant’s leaves. Is it fluffy like bits of cotton? Is the white mainly in the joints and crevices? If your answers are yes, then you have mealy bugs. Treat the plant by removing the bugs with a cotton swab dipped in alcohol.

Although we refer to Schlumbergera as a cactus, it’s really a tropical plant. During the spring and summer keep the plant consistently moist. Good soil drainage is important because root rot is a common problem with these plants.

If you plant is looking a little worse for wear, you can give it a hair cut in early summer. Simply snip off the top 2 or 3 segments of each stem. This will make the plant bushier and promote flower development. You can then root these cuttings to make more plants.

How to Properly Take Care of Your Christmas Cactus

A Christmas Cactus is the most talked about plant during the festive season. It’s unusual, attractive and a beautiful decor piece or a gift idea for Christmas. Red, yellow, pink, white – these are just some colours the beautiful petals come in, so it’s also a great plant to keep around your home, as it doesn’t have to be associated just with Christmas. If you want to nourish this plant all year long, so you always have it in your home, here’s how you should do it.

Spring Care

When spring arrives, it’s to fertilize after flowering. Maintain watering, but only water when the soil is completely dry.

Summer Care

Feel free to give your Christmas Cactus a taste of the outdoors. Bring it outside, but don’t place it in a sunny spot. Direct sunlight can actually damage the leaves, and burn them, if the heat is too intense. Instead place it in a location where there’s shade, or at least semi-shade.

Just because it’s a cactus, it doesn’t mean it doesn’t mean moisture. This is the most common misconception, that leads to your Christmas Cactus wilting. In fact, Christmas Cactus is different and requires a lot of moisture, especially during the summer.

Autumn Care

When the leaves start leaving the branches of trees, it’s time to take your Christmas cactus back inside. Make sure to place it in a room that’s going to provide light, but not additional evening light. When buds start to appear once again, you can bring it into your living room or any room that you like. This will usually be around September.

As far as watering is concerned, it’s time to change things up. While you were supposed to water it continuously during the summer, tone it down a bit in autumn, and water it simply so it doesn’t start wilting.

Winter Care

When you slowly start to approach winter, keep nourishing it and watering it, and make sure that the air doesn’t get too dry in the room where your Christmas Cactus is. It needs humidity to a certain point, and it needs hydration to keep budding and producing gorgeous blooms. At this time, it’s best to place it in an area of your home where it’s going to get about six hours of indirect sunlight.

Are you as equally obsessed with this gorgeous plant as we are? Then we suggest gifting it to someone, or if you are lucky to receive one, start nourishing it so that you will have it all year long.

Our friends have pointed out that we seem fixated on poinsettia and holly this time of year. Looking back over our ever-growing gardening blog we’d have to agree. These same friends point out that a visit to our home shows that we give equal space, if not more, to another colorful indoor plant: the Christmas cactus.

We kept a wonderful Christmas cactus, started from a cutting by our grandmother, for years until, until…well, we’ll save that story for later. The Christmas cactus left behind!

But let’s get down to the matter at hand. Is it a flowering cactus, as its name implies? Or a succulent?

If you think that this question doesn’t matter, well, you’re partially right. Call it anything and it’s still a thing of beauty with its green, glossy, droopy leaves and elongated, even sexy looking blossoms of red and pink, even orange and white depending on the strain. Different types — the Thanksgiving cactus, the Easter cactus — have different segmented leaves, some with points, some without.

To tell you the truth, we don’t know if these plants are succulents or cacti. We’ve seen articles that claim each and welcome any informed information you botanists, amateur and otherwise, might have.

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But what it is does matter when it comes to the care of your Christmas cactus, especially if you want it blooming during the holidays. And in that regard, it’s best treated as a succulent. Addressing the plant’s particular needs for light and water as if it’s a succulent — which we’re pretty sure it is — is the best way to fill it with blossoms.

Let’s start with soil because that’s the thing that controls the moisture available to the plant. A good potting mix that drains well is ideal. If you want to make your own, use a mixture of garden compost, leaf mold and non-salty sand in a roughly 4-2-1 balance. Perlite, vermiculite and other drainage enhancers can substitute for the sand. A little well composted cow manure is a good addition but make sure it’s very well composted. If it smells, it shouldn’t be inside.

Whatever pot you use, make sure that it has holes for draining. It should be deep enough for a layer of stones or pea-sized gravel at the bottom to facilitate draining. Cactus and succulents don’t like wet feet.

Unlike actual cactus, the Christmas cactus isn’t completely drought tolerant. It needs watering but, like a succulent, it can store water in its leaves. So allow the soil in the plant’s container to dry at least half-way down into the soil before watering again. The plant needs more water during the summer months, when you should just let the surface dry out, and less, even none during the winter after flowering.

Sunlight levels are important: not too much and not too little. The plants can tolerate partial shade and an east or even north facing window will maintain your plant during the summer. But if you want more blooms, make sure it gets less light — no more than 10 or 11 hours a day — during the months of October and November. If they’re indoors where they’ll see more light, you might start covering them in the fall.

True cactus, of course, need less water, especially if grown outdoors in soil. A potted cactus indoors will need more water but its potting medium should be allowed to dry out completely before it’s watered again. Cactus will also generally tolerate more light and heat. A potted cactus that you bring indoors during the winter needs time to adjust to direct sunlight when you return it to the outdoors. Your Christmas cactus will always need sun protection a good part of the day, indoors or out.

I’ve moved Christmas cactus outside during the summer but experience — a cruel teacher — has shown that they need to be mostly shaded, especially where the sun is intense. When nighttime temperature drop to 50 degrees, it’s time to bring them inside.

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To achieve maximum blooming, start withholding water in October. Cooler temperatures, say 60 degrees or so, also helps. Too much heat can cause problems so keep your plant away from heat ducts and other sources of warmth.

After blooming, keep plants cool, give them only a little water for a couple months, and don’t supplement the soil with amendments (fertilizing every other watering is a good idea during the summer). A good time to replant is when the cactus or whatever it is starts to show new growth.

That’s also a good time to start cuttings, though that can be done successfully almost any time except, in our humble experience, after blooming. Break off three or four segments of the stem and allow the moisture at the broken tip to dry before putting into potting soil with extra perlite or vermiculite. Keep the growing medium moist. When you see new growth coming from the end of your cutting, you know you’ve been successful.

Here’s more on starting Christmas cactus.

Newly rooted cuttings make great gifts, gifts that kids can get involved in growing. My grandmother — may she forever rest in peace — gave us a cutting decades ago and the plant thrived, growing large and full of holiday blossoms. It followed us around the country until it just got to big to move. So we took a cutting with us wrapped for a cross country trip in a towel to keep moist. This year, in its new home, it gave us its very first blooms. Thanks, grandma!

Frequently Asked Questions

1 Why did my Christmas cactus drop its flower buds?

Here’s some possible reasons:

  • Sudden change in temperature. These guys like temperatures to remain steady in their comfort range.
  • Over-watering causes stem and root rot, which can, in turn, cut off water to rest of plant and cause bud drop.
  • Low humidity can cause bud drop.
  • Pests are not common but mealybugs and soft brown scale can also cause bud drop.

2 Why are the leaves on my Christmas cactus limp?

  • Over-watering is a common cause. If your soil is moist, let it dry before watering again and reduce your watering schedule.
  • Root bound: if your plant has not been repotted in several years, it may be time to move up a pot size.

3 How often do you water a Christmas cactus?

  • Watering always depends on the unique conditions within your home, but, in general, holiday cacti can be watered every 1-3 weeks.
  • Check the soil with your finger tip or a moisture meter and water when it’s near dry.

4 Can you put a Christmas cactus outside in the summer?

  • Yes, if you live somewhere with the right weather conditions. Avoid direct sun, provide indirect light, and temperatures in the range of 65-75 °F (18-23 °C) are ideal.
  • In some locations, the transition into fall weather provides just what the plant needs to begin budding (and then flowering indoors).

5 How do I keep my Christmas cactus blooming?

You can’t really prolong blooming beyond what is natural for the plant, but you can make efforts to prevent shortening it.

  • Water carefully, leaning toward under— and never over—watering.
  • Keep the plant away from temperature swings (drafty windows, forced air heat).
  • Keep the plant out of direct light.
  • Do not fertilize during flowering time.

6 How can I revive my Christmas cactus?

This will depend on what caused your plant to suffer.

  • Read over the basic care tips and figure out what was missing.
  • If there are not pests or diseases present, you may be able to revive the plant by providing basic, consistent care (without over-doing it).
  • Other times, just parts of the plant are worth saving. In that case, take stem cuttings and root them in soil as described here.

7 When should I cut back my Christmas cactus?

Often a Christmas cactus will bloom twice within a few months but that’s it for a year.

  • After the second flowering can be a good time to prune the plant if it needs some assistance to achieve a healthier, more pleasing shape.
  • Any healthy stems you remove can be rooted for new plants.

8 Do Christmas cactus need full sun?

No, these plants originate as jungle plants which means they like indirect light, warmth, and humidity, but never wet roots.

9 How do I get my Christmas cactus to bloom again?

Thanksgiving and Christmas cacti in the Schlumbergera family often flower twice: first between October and February, and then between March and May.

Sometimes the conditions in our homes are favorable for budding and flowering, other times we may have to assist the plant with these tips.

A second flowering session may also occur naturally (if conditions are again favorable), or the plant may need encouragement after first flowering is done.

When all flowering is done, it’s time to begin fertilizing for six months to add nutrients for future blooms. Use organic cactus food and follow the instructions on the product label.

10 What is the white gooey stuff growing on my Christmas cactus?

This may be mealybugs (Pseudococcidae family), a soft-bodied wingless insect that gathers in the joints of plants as well as the soil. They are essentially sap-suckers that release gooey honeydew, drying out and eventually killing your plant.

There are three main steps to get rid of them.

First, isolate your plant from other houseplants so you do not spread them while treating them.

  1. Remove all visible bugs or goo.
    Use a swab dipped in 70% rubbing alcohol and apply directly to the bugs.
  2. Spray all foliage with rubbing alcohol. Check all nooks and crannies: these guys are sneaky.
  3. Gently wash plant and repot in disinfected pot with new potting mix.
  4. If any reappear, nab them immediately with rubbing alcohol.
    Long-term care may require neem oil spray or another plant spray made for this purpose.

Christmas Cacti Care

Natural History:

The true scientific name for this plant is a bit unclear. In PlantFiles, these are entered under both Schlumbergera truncata as well as Schlumbergera x buckleyi. It appears that the ‘true’ Christmas cacti are indeed hybrids of S. buckleyi and possibly S. truncata. Some call this plant a Zygocactus species, but that is definitely a synonym genus, not a currently accepted one for this species. Closely related plants include the Thanksgiving Cactus (again, due to the timing of the plant’s natural affinity to bloom around Thanksgiving) or Crab Cactus, (due to the overall shape of the plant) and Easter cacti. These plants are nearly identical to Christmas cacti but tend to either have sharper node tips, or much blunter node tips and bloom at different times of the year.

flowers coming from tips of branches

Schlumbergeras are epiphytes in nature (grow on other plants or non-soil surfaces), from the high elevation jungles of Brazil. Their natural environment is a relatively cool even temperature, high humidity, bright light with little direct sunlight, and frequent rain. Considering their tropical source and epiphytic nature, however, they do amazingly well as potted plants in normal cactus soil and in a warm temperate climate, or indoors.

A particularly large and old plant- these do well as hanging plants thanks to their epiphytic nature (photo by trilian15)

Though these are indeed true cacti, they do not look like the cacti most are normally used to seeing. These plants are fleshy, green, segmented plants that, over time, develop woody, thick stems. Thankfully they are basically spineless (aka ‘user-friendly’). They also have no leaves, though some sources refer to the segments as cladophylls, or a form of leaf. However, the segments are usually called cladodes and are similar in general form to those that make up Opuntia cacti. Flowers develop in fall from the tips of the last cladode of each segmented arm.

old plant with woody stem (photo by pdb George4tax)

Care:

Not surprisingly, Christmas cacti require different care than do most cacti. Though from the tropics, they live in a relatively cool environment and therefore do NOT like high heat like most cacti do. Basically all cacti are summer growers and spend winter basically comatose or at least very inactive in terms of growing or flowering. And this is still true of Christmas cacti, despite their blooming in winter. They do very little growing in winter, but it is the best time of year to enjoy Christmas cacti, when the days are shortening and the temps cooling down. They don’t like temps much over 80F anyway. On the other hand they cannot tolerate freezes either, and prefer temps above 55F (though outdoor plants seem to cope with temps into the low 30s well- just not very happy about them). So if keeping them outdoors and cold weather is coming, it’s time to bring them in.

photo by Clare_CA

note the color change of leaves in winter, due to cold on this outdoor plant

And unlike most cacti, Schlumbergeras do not like full sun, particularly when it’s hot. But they do like bright light and grow and flower best if the light is very bright. Fortunately they do tolerate low light situations for short periods of time, and that is why they do so well as indoor plants. A few days in the middle of the table far from windows will not do them much harm… but they do need to be returned to an area of bright light soon after, or blooming might cease early. For those in cold climates, these cacti do best if kept outdoors under a shady tree or porch when it’s warm and moved back indoors near a bright window as it gets colder. In warmer climates these can be kept outdoors year round, but still don’t try to grow them in the garden like one would a regular cactus. I have tried this over and over unsuccessfully, though I can sometimes get them to grow in raised beds on the north side of a house if watered well all year round. Freezes will damage them, but it takes a pretty severe freeze in southern California to kill one.

These are sale plants in a nursery in low light. There were probably greenhouse plants until just recently. Note the buds on the plant in second photo. Perhaps this one will still be blooming around Christmas, but as this is November, it may not be. Best to get a brand new plant a week before Christmas if you want to be blooming then.

They still are cacti, though, and need to be planted in well draining soil. Remember that in the wild they basically live in soilless situations, so water needs to drain past the roots easily, or they could rot. I have personally found that they do not rot all that easily, though, and some carelessness about watering is tolerated. But certainly not recommended! Underwatering will kill a Christmas Cactus, too, but a lot more slowly. There is plenty of time to intervene should the cladodes appear flattened and wrinkled. Schlumbergeras are from high rainfall and high humidity environments and do appreciate being watered regularly. These plants tend to do well in soils with a good portion of peat moss, something that, if it dries out, will be hard to get wet again. So be careful not to let soils get too dry if using peat moss. Use clay pots if growing these in humid climates, and plastic pots if growing in arid climates. Leach the soil 2-3x a year of accumulated salts.

Once the days shorten (usually in October), back off on watering. Some recommend NO water the entire month of October, and then resume again in November. Then it is recommended to withhold water again once blooming is over for a bit longer than a month this time. If signs of new growth appear, it’s time to start watering again. This is also a good time to repot the plant and put it in some new, clean, well draining soil. Repotting is recommended every few years.

First photo is of my outdoor plant on Thanksgiving, and then a week later.

Fertilization should be with half strength water soluble formulas and only in warmer weather (not during or after flowering, until new growth is seen and time for repotting). If using a granular fertilizer, it is best to be stingy- these plants do tolerate fertilizers better than do most cacti, but still, be careful. 10-10-10 is the best ratio to use.

For plants that are not flowering as expected, be sure the soil is not too dry, or plants are not next to a cold or hot source (air conditioner, heater etc.). If there is some night light on the plant, it might retard it from blooming well. Put these plants in a totally dark room for a minimum of 13 hours a night. This will also help these plants bloom when wanted, and not too early (like around Thanksgiving which is probably more ‘normal’ for most plants). These plants may need longer light to simulate early fall, rather than late fall, to keep them from blooming too early. Then do the total darkness thing about 4-6 weeks before the time blooming is desired, every night until buds form and the plants can be returned to their location near the window or table. And be sure the daytime temps are in the 60s (hot houses will prevent these from blooming) and night temps are not much below 50F. Sometimes a little liquid fertilizer with extra potassium can help stimulate blooming. Once flowering starts, it is recommended not to move these plants too much, in terms of overall heat and light, or they may abruptly stop blooming and drop all their buds.

My plant right from the seller in photo on left above, where it has been kept indoors and happy, to outdoor life on the right- note all the blooms fell off and hardly any flowering, despite only being a week later- went into shock from the change of environment

Problem insects include fungus gnats, mealy bug and scale. The first one can often be controlled by simple insecticidal soap and trying not to keep the soils too wet. The other two usually need systemic insecticides, particularly scale, and can really damage a Christmas Cactus in a hurry. Plants kept in areas where there is good air circulation (such as hanging outdoors under a tree) usually have less problems with insects.

Pruning of plants once the flowering season is over is a good way to make the plants bushier or fuller. This also provides one with a number of cuttings for making more plants.

These are pretty easy plants to propagate, by just taking cuttings of 1-4 cladodes long and letting them sit in a cool dry place for 2-3 days, then planting them in a pumice or well draining soil/germinating mix until new growth is seen. Water only sparingly at first, but once roots form or new growth is seen, water regularly. It is best to do this when it’s warm, but possible to do just about any time of year.

These plants come in a variety of colors now as hybridization practices become more refined. Photos from left to right: mine, pdb_vince, jnana and Grasmussen

These are long lived plants and if taken well care of, repotted regularly and keep from rotting or drying out too much, they can become fairly large, woody-based plants and become family heirlooms for generations.

The following link is to a site which is the best I have seen for explaining the differences between Christmas Cacti, Thanksgiving Cacti and Easter Cacti:

http://cactus.biology.dal.ca/paulS/christmas/christmas.html#christmas

(Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on December 23, 2007. Your comments are welcome, but please be aware that authors of previously published articles may not be able to promptly respond to new questions or comments.)

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