Leaves Dropping From Christmas Cactus: Fixing Leaf Drop On Christmas Cactus
Christmas cactus is relatively easy to grow, so if you notice Christmas cactus leaves dropping off, you’re justifiably mystified and concerned about the health of your plant. It isn’t always easy to determine what causes leaves dropping from Christmas cactus, but there are a number of possibilities. So why do Christmas cacti drop their leaves, you ask? Read on to learn more.
Why Do Christmas Cacti Drop Their Leaves?
Most frequently grown as a houseplant, it has the distinct property of blooming when the days are shortest, bringing color and brightness when most other plants are dying or settling in for the winter. This is all the more reason to be concerned when your Christmas cactus is losing leaves. Preventing and fixing leaf drop on Christmas cactus may be as simple as pinpointing the problem. When otherwise healthy leaves fall from Christmas cactus plants, there are a few possible reasons, with the following being the most common:
Improper watering – When it comes to caring for Christmas cactus, overwatering is a big no-no. Although Christmas cactus requires more moisture than its desert cousins, too much water can cause the plant to rot – a common cause for leaves dropping from Christmas cactus. Although not quite so common, underwatering can also cause leaves to drop.
As a rule of thumb, a Christmas cactus should be watered about once a week, or when the top of the soil feels dry to the touch. Water until moisture trickles through the drainage hole, then allow the pot to drain completely before placing it on the top. Don’t allow the soil to become bone dry, but never allow it to remain soggy. Water the plant sparingly during fall and winter.
Poorly-drained soil – If your Christmas cactus leaves are falling off, it may also be caused by soil that is too dense or compacted. Christmas cactus requires porous, well-drained soil. If the soil is compacted or doesn’t drain well, it may benefit from repotting in a clean pot with fresh potting soil. A potting mix consisting of approximately 75 percent regular, good quality potting soil with 25 percent sand or perlite works well. Be sure the pot has a drainage hole.
Temperature – Too much heat or cold may be to blame for Christmas cactus leaves dropping off. Christmas cactus doesn’t appreciate cold temperature. As a general rule, the plant prefers temperatures between 70 and 80 F. (21-27 C.) during spring and summer, and slightly cooler temperatures during fall and winter. Don’t allow temperatures to rise above 90 F. (32 C.).
Cooler temperatures are beneficial while the plant is setting buds, but never below 50 F. (10 C.). Avoid sudden temperature changes and protect the plant from drafty windows and heat sources such as fireplaces or vents.
If you’ve just bought your Christmas cactus or just moved it in from its summer spot outdoors, it’s probably experiencing a big change in environment. The shock of this change may make it drop a few leaves, and there’s not much that can be done about this.
Light – Christmas cactus performs best in bright, indirect sunlight and may be damaged in bright, intense light, especially during the summer.
One nice thing about a Christmas cactus dropping leaves is that these plants are very easy to propagate. What we refer to as “leaves” are really segmented branches. As long as they’re healthy looking, try planting your dropped branch in a new container – chances are good that it will take root and grow into a new plant.
Trott: Why does my Christmas cactus bloom at Thanksgiving?
Many people may wonder why their Christmas cactus is blooming at Thanksgiving or even earlier. There are actually several popular holiday cacti: the Thanksgiving, Christmas, and less familiar Easter cactus.
Despite the name cactus, these plants are not from the desert. Instead, the Thanksgiving and Christmas cacti are both in the Schlumbergera family, and native to the tropical forests of Brazil.
Thanksgiving and Christmas cacti received their names because they typically bloom near the holiday. However, that is not always accurate. Day length and temperature trigger bloom periods. Therefore, your Thanksgiving cacti might bloom at Halloween and your Christmas cacti might bloom closer to Thanksgiving.
A more definitive way to tell the difference between a Thanksgiving cactus and a Christmas cactus is by looking at the leaves and flowers.
The Thanksgiving cactus’ leaf segments have a pointed, jagged edge, while the Christmas cactus’ leaf segments are smooth and rounded. Upon closer inspection of the flower parts of the plan, the anther (pollen-bearing part of the flower) is yellow on the Thanksgiving cactus and purplish-brown on the Christmas cactus.
Thanksgiving cacti are often sold as Christmas cacti, which only adds to the confusion.
To initiate flowering, either plant needs less than 12 hours of light per day and temperatures of less than 68 degrees. Flower buds will set regardless of the daylight hours if temperatures are less than 55 degrees.
If the conditions in your home do not meet these requirements, take these extra steps to trigger bloom. Simply cover the cactus or put it in a dark closet for at least 12 hours a day. In some warm homes, if temperatures never drop below 70 degrees, the plant may never bloom regardless of the amount of light.
Warm rooms with low humidity can cause bud drop in budded plants. Plants that are overwatered may drop leaf segments.
The perfect place for the cactus is in a bright, indirect light, with suitable temperatures away from drafts. Water the plant when the growing medium is dry to the touch. Do not overwater, especially in the winter.
Keep the soil medium evenly moist in the fall when flower buds are set to prevent them from withering. Never let water stand in the saucer below the pot.
Fertilize the plant with a general-purpose fertilizer monthly during the growing season, fertilize with half strength from late winter through summer, and finally stop fertilizing in late summer for greater flower bud production.
When the cactus is no longer blooming, it will benefit from a “resting” period. Allow the soil to dry out between watering, but do not allow the leaves to shrivel.
Thanksgiving and Christmas cactus bloom best when slightly pot-bound. The best time to repot is in spring when new growth begins. The best potting medium is well-drained soil with good aeration, such as a mix containing two-thirds potting soil and one-third perlite or course sand. Do not use a cactus soil mixture.
Take a close look at your holiday cactus: is it a true Christmas cactus, or is it a Thanksgiving cactus? Either way, with the proper care this plant will bloom for six to eight weeks each year for many, many years.
For more information on all houseplants, visit extension.umn.edu and search houseplants.
Until next time, happy gardening!
Robin Trott is a horticulture educator with University of Minnesota Extension. Contact her at 320-762-3890, or at [email protected]
In the comments section of the entry for How To Make Your Christmas Cactus bloom are visitor asked this question that I thought was pretty interesting.
…Periodically, they insist on dropping branches. They seem fine and then just drop large healthy looking limbs. My plant is slowly getting sparcer instead of larger. Any ideas?-Sue
Sue, since you don’t make any mention of disease or pests and say that your plant loses healthy limbs this may be an instance where “it just happens” or we may have to do some plant detective work.
The fleshy stems of Christmas cactus (Schlumbergera) hold water and it may be that you’re watering too much. But overwatering would usually be accompanied by root rot or some visible signs in the leaf segments of this cactus or flower bud loss.
Also, you don’t mention where the stem loss is occurring on your plant. Are the stems that are falling off on the outside of the plant or is it losing stems from within the center of the plant? If it is the outside of the plant have you considered the possibility of people or pets brushing up against it and breaking off a piece? You mentioned in the comment that you live in an area where you can now grow these outside; besides people and pets maybe it is being visited by squirrels, birds or some kind of “garden pest.” If the stem loss is occurring within the center of the plant it may be because of low light. When sufficient light fails to reach the center of a bushy plant it will drop leavs from the center and branches die back.
Why I think it may “just happen.”
Think about where these plants are native to and how they grow there. They can be found growing overhead in the tropical rainforest. Another clue could be the design of the plant itself. Why did the plant evolve to grow leaf segments that break and root easily instead of a long vine like an ivy? We know that the plant grows high up in tree branches so maybe the stems breaking and falling off is a necessity. If a Schlumbergera is growing high up in a tree and a branch breaks- it falls and perhaps gets stuck on a tree branch below. Withing a few weeks the piece that broke off is rooted, growing and a whole new plant is created. You can use this to your advantage by rooting the branches that break off and planting them back into your potted plant. See my entry on Rooting Christmas Cactus Cuttings by following that link.
Some things I think you can safely eliminate as the cause of your branch loss.
Underwatering: The branches wouldn’t look “healthy”- they’d shrivel or turn brown and crisp.
Cold temps: If your plant was exposed to cold temperatures it would also show signs in the branches and leaf segments. The color would darken to a black or brown and become mushy.
Hot temp: Again the branches would turn brown and crisp from drying out.
Hope this helps and thanks for stopping by and asking a question that gave my brain a workout.Okay, so Easter is over and that pretty houseplant your co-worker gave you has lost its flowers. Now what? Even though Easter cactus is at its best while blooming, it also makes a great low maintenance houseplant all year long! I’m going to show you what to do with your Easter cactus now that it’s done blooming, how to take cuttings, and how to get even more blooms next year!
My Easter Cactus Stopped Blooming
Well, of course it did. In the rainforest, Easter cacti (Rhipsalidopsis spp.) put all of their energy into a single display of dazzling flowers to attract pollinators like hummingbirds. After that excessive workout your cactus is ready for a break. It might be hard, but do not water or feed your plant for about a month. A little water is fine during that period if the leaves start to shrivel, but if you want lots of flowers next year, lay off on the water. Remove the seedpods at the bases of the shriveled flowers so energy isn’t wasted developing fruits that the cactus has no use for.
My Easter Cactus is Falling Apart
Many times, Easter cacti will terrify their owners by falling to pieces at the joints and collapsing, leaving their segments all over the place. Do not panic. This sometimes happens when plants are stressed from overwatering or underwatering and these segments or pads can easily be rooted and grown into new plants! The specimen mounted on my centerpiece started out as only three individual pads from a collapsed plant. I rooted the segments by inserting in potting soil, and in a couple years I had blooms all over again!
How Do I Repot My Easter Cactus?
Even though your Easter cactus was potted by the grower in soggy peat moss, keep in mind that these cacti’s roots like room to breathe since they’re epiphytes and naturally grow in trees. I’ve had the most success mounting them like orchids, but any mix suitable for bromeliads and orchids would work. If you’re concerned about not watering it enough, simply add some potting mix to retain more moisture.
Can I Take Easter Cactus Cuttings?
Definitely! Rooting Easter cactus stems is incredibly easy and rewarding, even for those new to gardening. I once threw the trimmed stems in the garden and found that they rooted on their own! To root Easter cactus, simply take cuttings one to four segments long, allow the cut ends to dry for a day or two, apply rooting hormone to the cut stems and insert in potting soil, watering regularly until established. Though rooting hormone isn’t necessary, I once did an experiment with one container rooted with hormone, and one without. As you would guess, the cuttings with rooting hormone showed new growth much sooner, a few weeks ahead of its neighbor.
How Do I Get Easter Cactus to Rebloom?
To get your Easter cactus to bloom again, give it cooler temperatures in winter and reduce watering after they bloom. Easter cacti can really tolerate temperatures down to freezing (not below freezing) but 50F is usually sufficient. If you would like even more blooms, try trimming off the last segments, just above the joint. This encourages the plant to form multiple new stems that will form next year’s flowers, and it also removes those useless fruits that I mentioned earlier. So remember: cooler temps in winter, less water after blooming, and tip prune after blooming.
You can also combine your Easter cactus with other epiphytic plants like I have in the photo above. Here’s how to make your own.
If you’d like to learn about combining Easter cactus and other houseplants to make beautiful long lasting indoor arrangements, be sure to look at my book Plant by Numbers!
Here are some more fun projects:
How to Make a Rainforest Drop!
Tropical Vertical Garden
Tillandsias for Decor
Beachcombing for Gardeners
Container Garden Ideas
Q: My Christmas cactus is losing its buds. What can I do?
Q: I was given a Christmas cactus last year and I loved it. I put it outside on my shady porch and it has thrived. It has been full of buds. With these cold nights, I decided to bring it inside. Now the plant is losing its buds, one flower at a time. It seems like every time I turn around, more have fallen off. What can I do?
A: As soon as we hear the word cactus we usually assume the plant must like a hot, dry environment. However, Christmas cactus, Schlumbergera bridgesii, is a native of the rain forests of Brazil. These plants typically are found growing in the canopy of shade trees, which is why the plant adapted so well on your back porch, protected from direct light. I suspect the reason for the bud drop is the extreme temperature change from the outside to indoors. Moving them back outside might produce an additional shock so I would not recommend it.
Christmas cactus can tolerate summer temperatures near the 80s but it will show some adverse damage when temperatures drop below 50. This moderate temperature range preference is one of the reasons why many people opt to keep it indoors. You could keep it outside during the winter and protect it with a light covering when temperatures drop below 50. Christmas cactus does not have true leaves. The flat, green, leaf-like structures holding the flower are actually specialized stems called phylloclades. If they are exposed to too much direct sunlight, they turn pale green.
You can alternate fertilizer application with a small amount of Epsom salts – magnesium sulfate (1 teaspoon per gallon of water). This plant can tolerate a dry soil but during budding and flowering, it is best to keep the soil moist but not wet. Pinch back the stems (phylloclades) in early June to promote branching. Remove the short, terminal stems in September to encourage flower bud formation. Flowers will only develop on mature stems. Keep the plants away from direct lighting in the evening hours as this will discourage flower.
Posted: July 18, 2017
Category: Home Landscapes
Tags: Christmas Cactus, Schlumbergera bridgesii
Christmas Cactus Losing Leaves
I have two 32 year old Christmas cacti I got when i got married. I have taken great care of them i thought. Well 1 of them is doing so nicely getting new leaves and just doing great. I live in southern Ontario so in fall i put them in my west window. Has always done great. Lots and lots of flowers. Well the other one has leaves dropping like crazy. They both have been repotted the same time and have 12″ pots. In spring time i put them outside on the southern side of my house which gets half shade from noon till sundown. I don’t know what is wrong. Two years ago they had 100’s of flowers on them both. I just don’t know could it be that it’s just getting old?
From your description, you have two identical plants that have been treated in exactly the same manner and kept in the same locations for 32 years and now one is not doing well while the other is thriving. That scenario seems improbable, so most likely something has happened to the ailing plant that did not happen to the other one.
Leaf drop on a Christmas Cactus is not a good sign and has many possible causes, including over-potting, improper watering, improper light and temps that are too warm.
I need more information from you as to what is different between the two plants other than their current condition. My biggest concern is the pot size. 12 inches is very large for any Christmas Cactus and substantially increases the possibility of root rot. If you can provide details on the repotting that would be helpful.