- Christmas Cactus Problems – Tips For Reviving A Limp Christmas Cactus
- Christmas Cactus Problems
- Reviving a Limp Christmas Cactus
- Results of Christmas Cactus Problems
- How to Care for Your Christmas Cactus
- What Is a Christmas Cactus?
- What’s the Right Way to Care for Your Christmas Cacti?
- How Can You Get Them to Bloom?
- How Do You Propagate a Christmas Cactus?
- Wilting Christmas Cactus
- Christmas Cactus Is Rotting: Tips On Treating Root Rot In Christmas Cactus
- Signs of Root Rot in Christmas Cactus
- Treating a Holiday Cactus with Root Rot
Christmas Cactus Problems – Tips For Reviving A Limp Christmas Cactus
You’ve been caring for it all year and now that it’s time to expect winter blooms, you find the leathery leaves wilted and limp on your Christmas cactus. You may be wondering why is my Christmas cactus limp? Correct Christmas cactus problems, such as a limp Christmas cactus, with these simple tips.
Christmas Cactus Problems
Wilted or limp Christmas cactus is sometimes caused by a lack of water or too much direct sunlight. If you’ve neglected to water the limp Christmas cactus, begin by giving the plant a limited drink. Continue to water sparingly every few days until the soil is lightly moist.
Soil that is too wet causes Christmas cactus problems too. As an epiphyte in its native home on the tropical forest floor, the Christmas cactus absorbs water and nutrients from the air, and as such can’t handle soggy roots. Poor drainage and soggy roots can make Christmas cactus very limp.
If your wilted or limp Christmas cactus has leaves that appear to be parched or scorched, move it to an area with more shade, particularly in the afternoon.
Reviving a Limp Christmas Cactus
When the Christmas cactus is very limp and the soil is soggy, repot into fresh soil. Remove the limp Christmas cactus from the pot and gently remove as much soil as possible. Avoid future Christmas cactus problems by mixing your own soil for repotting. Use a good quality potting soil at two parts potting soil to one part sand or vermiculite, assuring sharp drainage.
Even if the soil is not soggy, repotting may be the solution to reviving a limp Christmas cactus. While the plant likes to be tight in the pot, moving it to a slightly larger container with fresh soil every few years helps avoid Christmas cactus problems.
Results of Christmas Cactus Problems
If you’re able to revive the plant, you may get winter blooms. The stress the plant has experienced may cause this year’s blooms to drop prematurely. When all your blooms drop at once, expect an outstanding show next year from what was once your limp Christmas cactus.
How to Care for Your Christmas Cactus
Thanks to its colorful flowers that bloom in winter, the Christmas cactus (Schlumbergera buckleyi) has become a cheery addition to many families’ homes during this festive time of year. Though we tend to associate cacti with arid, desert-like conditions, the Christmas cactus originated in the tropical rainforests of Southeastern Brazil, and “prefer more humid environments than other cacti,” says Christopher Satch, Plant Scientist at New York based houseplant oasis The Sill. With the correct conditions and care, you can keep this merry houseplant alive and blooming for years to come. Here’s what you need to know.
Related: Learn How to Be a Better Plant Parent
What Is a Christmas Cactus?
Things can get confusing since there are three types of holiday cacti: Christmas, Thanksgiving, and Easter. Each cacti blooms around the holiday it’s named after. Christmas cacti have hanging branches composed of flat green leaves and rounded teeth. They produce red, pink, white, or purple flowers that bloom at the ends of these branches (which may reach up to three feet!). Each flower-which is typically about three inches long-lasts for several days, though the entire flowering period typically spans about two weeks.
Image zoom Oana Coman-Sipeanu/Getty
What’s the Right Way to Care for Your Christmas Cacti?
To ensure your Christmas cactus gets enough moisture, Satch recommends checking the soil. When the top layer of soil feels dry, or when its leaves start to wrinkle, is when you should give your plant a good drink. Make sure that your cactus is properly potted with lightweight soil that allows for drainage into a planter with holes at the base. One word of warning: Never let your cactus sit in water, which can lead to root rot. Another important tip: Fertilize every two weeks during active growth. If your home is particularly dry, place a shallow bowl of water nearby to help humidify the air. Christmas cactus love bright, indirect sunlight. Just make sure to avoid direct sunlight which can burn the leaves.
How Can You Get Them to Bloom?
In order for those stunning flowers to appear, your cactus needs the right conditions. This includes short days and long (dark) nights. Six to eight weeks before Christmas, place your cactus in a completely dark area (like the garage or basement, where house lights won’t be on) for 12 hours each night, then carry it to a sunny spot to expose it to 10 hours of daylight. If for some reason buds don’t form, Satch recommends bringing your plant closer to a window, as this is your plant’s way of telling you that the daytime light isn’t bright enough.
How Do You Propagate a Christmas Cactus?
The only thing better than one Christmas cactus is two (or more), and the good news is that these plants are super easy to propagate. Just trim three to four segments and plant them in a small pot, ideally with some soil taken from the parent plant. Care for the segment the same as you would a mature plant and they’ll root fairly quickly (in about four to six weeks). The best time to propagate is in the spring.
Christmas cacti, also known as Zygo or Schlumbergera, are one of the holiday season’s most iconic plants. They grow wild in some parts of the world, like Central and South America, but in the U.S. they’re usually grown indoors as houseplants, making elegant Christmas décor.
They’re not very similar to the true cacti that grow in the desert, as these varieties are tropical. They typically grow in the forks of tree limbs where there are plenty of decaying leaves to provide nutrients. One of the most endearing qualities about a Christmas cactus is that it can live for generations, sometimes being passed down in families for hundreds of years.
To get your Christmas cactus to bloom in time for the holidays, you’ll need to induce a period of darkness. They need six weeks or more of darkness for 12 hours each day. The Salinas Californian suggests that eight days of 16-hour darkness will also do the trick, as long as the temperature is below 61 degrees. A colder room with window coverings or a cool garage could be the perfect place to store your Christmas cactus. Once you see buds developing, you can move the cactus into a brighter room.
Christmas cacti require the same amount of water as typical tropical plants, but they should be watered less when you’re trying to get them to bloom. HumeSeeds.com recommends watering them thoroughly, then allowing the top inch of soil to dry completely before you water again (less when you’re waiting for blooms). You should also put a container of water somewhere near your Christmas cactus, as it requires humidity to grow healthy. As the water evaporates, your Christmas plant will get the amount of hydration it needs.
If you want to start more plants or share your beloved Christmas cactus with a friend, you can twist pieces off and grow them separately. It’s important to twist, not cut, the pieces. Sever sections that have two or three leaf pads and let them dry for a day. When they’re ready, push the bottoms into a container of soil mixed with a bit of sand. It should begin to root in a few weeks. You may want to put several pieces in one pot, as this plant likes to be a bit crowded.
Christmas decorations as gifts are always a great idea for the holidays, and you can be sure that whoever you give a Christmas cactus to will be able to enjoy the plant for years to come.
A brilliant pink-flowered specimen blooming in the DC Smith Conservatory on the UW-Madison campus.
Evergreen boughs. Poinsettias. Holiday cactus. These are the indoor plants of the season. Of all these, the holiday cactus can be the longest-lived, giving a greater bounty of flowers with each successive year. Some people do indeed have a green thumb in getting holiday cactus to grow and thrive, but all too many of these plants, that are either received as gifts or purchased for their cheerful seasonal color, languish and eventually die. This article is intended to help you not only keep your holiday cactus alive, but even more, to successfully achieve that desired floral spectacle year after year.
What are Holiday Cactus?
Holiday cactus are indeed true cactus, in the same plant family as the giant saguaros of Arizona and our native Wisconsin prickly pears. The origins of holiday cactus are found in the mountainous jungles of Brazil, where they grow as epiphytic plants, with their roots anchoring them to branches high up in forest trees, or sometimes growing in shady areas of cliffs or rock outcrops. Because of their rounded and flattened appearance, the stems are often confused for leaves, but, like most cactus, there are no true leaves. In nature, the plants are pendant, hanging from their perches on trees or cliffs. Although young plants have an upright form, as they age the ends of the branches tend to sag, giving a very graceful appearance. In age, the basal stems get thickened and woody, helping support the weight of the younger stems and, seasonally, the great profusion of flowers.
The leaves of a holiday cactus can help identify its parentage: the hybrid S. xbuckleyi has more rounded leaf edges (L) while S. truncata has pointed projections on the leaves (R).
In nature there are relatively few types, or species, of holiday cactus, and they belong to two different genera, Rhipsalidopsis and Schlumbergera. Rhipsalidopsis are spring bloomers, and are sometimes referred to as Easter cactus. But in this article we will discuss Schlumbergera, because these are the plants that commonly bloom from early November into January, during the holidays of Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year. These plants are commonly called Christmas cactus and, occasionally, Thanksgiving cactus. There are relatively few natural species of Schlumbergera, and the vast array of colors in the many cultivars and hybrids on the market today result primarily from the parentage of a true species, S. truncata and an early hybrid known as S. x buckleyi. S. truncata (formerly known as Zygocactus truncatus) has distinctly pointed projections at the edges and ends of the stem segments, whereas S. x buckleyi has more rounded, scalloped edges. S. truncata blooms earlier, closer to Thanksgiving, while S. x buckleyi blooms closer to Christmas. Hybrids between the two have intermediate blooming times.
In nature, Schlumbergera flowers range from pale to deep pink and occasionally into red. There are well over a hundred cultivars and hybrids that have been produced and named. These commonly range from almost pure white, through various shades of pink and purple, to deep red; many are bicolored pink, purple, or red with white. A few cultivars are available that are lovely shades of yellow or gold.
Flowers of holiday cactus come a range of shades, including bicolor (L), red (LC, white (C), almost orange (RC) and pink (R).
Caring for Holiday Cactus
When planning the care of holiday cactus plants, think a bit about the conditions in which the plants grow in nature.
- Temperature. First, they grow in mountain forests of Brazil, at elevations of 3000 – 5000 ft. That means they get cool, especially at night in the winter, but never cold. Therefore, consider minimum temperatures to be around 55-60°F; they can not tolerate frost. Living at higher elevations and in the forest shade, they are not exposed to the high temperatures we often think of in relation to the desert habitats of other types of cactus. In general, they thrive at daytime temperatures of 75-80°.
- Sunlight. Similarly, they do not well tolerate prolonged periods of strong, direct sunlight. They prefer bright indirect light, or the light shade of a lath house or shade house. Some people have great success by putting them outdoors in the frost-free period, such as hanging them in their pots in the branches of a shade tree, but avoid the deep shade found under large mature trees such as Norway maple. A shaded porch is another ideal location; south exposure is best as long as they are not in direct sun for more than a few hours in the morning. Indoors, they grow wonderfully well in a bright window, but fresh air movement helps keep plants healthy.
- Water. Another consideration is water. Again, in nature, they are growing in locations of perfect drainage, hanging from tree branches or rocky cliffs. In the rain forest, they receive frequent rains during the wet season, but the water runs off rapidly and the roots do not persist in waterlogged soil. Even in the dry season, they may get 2-3 inches of rainfall monthly. Frequent waterings are good if your soil mix is very well drained. If you have a heavier soil that tends to retain moisture, allow the soil to dry somewhat between waterings. Some growers recommend slightly reducing the watering regimen in August and September to harden the stems that will be bearing the flowers, and then resuming normal watering once the flower buds start to swell noticeably.
Holiday cactus need bright indirect light and moderate temperatures.
Soil. Ideally, soil will be humusy, slightly acidic, and well drained. A famous commercial grower in southern California recommends a mix consisting of 40% perlite and 60% peat moss. But keep in mind that peat moss tends to lose its structural integrity after a few years, resulting in poor drainage and suffocation of the roots; periodic repotting into fresh soil resolves this situation.
- Fertilizer. In nature Schlumbergeras receive a constant supply of nutrients from decaying tree foliage, bird droppings, and other natural fertilizer. They normally grow more rapidly than desert-dwelling cacti and therefore can be fertilized more like a conventional houseplant. Use a good-quality, balanced, soluble or granular fertilizer, such as a 10-10-10. If using full strength according to label directions, fertilize monthly. Otherwise, cut the fertilizer rate to about 25% of what is recommended on the label and fertilize with each watering. Stop fertilizing in September to reduce vegetative growth and help stimulate bud formation on strong stems; resume fertilizing after the blossom period. Occasional use of micronutrients may be helpful.
- Pests. Holiday cactus are fairly immune from pests, but scale insects, mealybugs, and spider mites can occasionally be problems. Use an approved houseplant insecticide according to label directions. Slugs and snails love holiday cactus, so if growing your plants outdoors, keep the pots off the ground. Holiday cactus have relatively few disease problems, but constant moisture in a poorly drained soil will promote the development of root-rotting fungi. If the plants are sagging and not growing even though the soil is moist, you should check to see if it has a healthy root system. If not, take some cuttings to start a new plant, and use a better-draining soil mix.
- Propagation. Plants are easily propagated from stem cuttings. Individual “joints” can be used, or cuttings up to 2-3 joints long. Let the cuttings dry in a shady location 2-3 days and then put in a rooting medium such as perlite, or into a good soil mix. Keep the medium moist but not saturated. Rooting should take place in 2-3 weeks and new growth should start. New plants can be started any time of the year, but you may get better results in late spring through summer. After the new plants have started growth, pinch them back to encourage branching. Often, three new plants are potted together to create an instant potful.
Stem cuttings (L) and cuttings potted up for rooting (R).
Saving an Old Favorite – A Special Challenge
A really old, large Christmas cactus in full bloom is a beautiful marvel – hundreds of brightly colored flowers can be open at the same time. It is not unusual to see plants in 12-15” diameter pots, with a canopy spread of nearly three feet. These plants can be decades old, and literally passed down from generation to generation; such plants may have much sentimental value in addition to their seasonal beauty.
A large, old blooming holiday cactus.
All potted plants need occasional transplanting for various reasons. Most commonly, the plant outgrows the pot. But more cryptically, potting soils become altered through time to no longer be acceptable growing media. As plants get bigger the repotting process becomes more difficult to deal with, and avoidance of the inevitable (i.e., procrastination) rears its ugly head. But potting soils can eventually become both chemically toxic and physically lethal to plant roots. As a succulent plant, the stems of Christmas cacti can survive for amazing periods without water if the roots are dead. Entire plant death from slow starvation and dehydration may literally take years. But there are tell-tale signs of stress that include (1) reduced flower bud formation, (2) flower bud abortion, (3) reduced new stem growth, (4) shriveling of the younger stems even when well-watered, (5) “self-pruning” or dropping of younger stem segments, and (6) development of small, hair-like adventitious roots at the bases of many stem segments. Another sign of possible root loss is abnormally prolonged moisture in the soil because of the lack of healthy roots to extract soil moisture during normal transpiration.
As with many maladies, prevention is the best cure. Routinely repot your plant at least every 4-5 years. In the process, be sure to remove most of the old soil and then inspect the roots to be certain they look healthy. Use a well-drained soil mix and cut back on normal watering for a month or so to allow the development of new feeder roots. Large plants may need to be staked until new roots provide firm anchorage.
Another worthwhile practice is to root a few new cuttings every 3-5 years and keep a couple of healthy young plants on hand in case the original plant succumbs.
If you must deal with an obviously-stressed plant, unpot and examine the root system. Cut back any dead or diseased roots and allow the pruned roots to air dry for a few days before repotting. In extreme circumstances, the entire root system may be dead all the way back to the base of the plant; such plants can be very difficult to save. If this is the case, carefully clean the root system as much as possible, maybe just leaving the stem base. Severely prune back the stems so that they are not over-taxing the new roots that hopefully will form. After a few days repot the plant in fresh soil. Water sparingly and just in the area of the surviving roots. If you are successful, the remaining stems will eventually plump up and new stem growth will be apparent. Save numerous cuttings of various sizes and try to root these to produce new plants (see Propagation above). (Your success rate may be very low – in one case I successfully rooted only one of over 30 cuttings from a highly stressed plant).
Have you ever wondered why the plant you received, in full bloom, for Christmas a few years ago has always since bloomed in November? The reason is that the environmental factor that stimulates blossoming is the photoperiod, that is, the amount of hours of daylight. Commercial nurserymen growing Christmas cactus artificially control photoperiod by using bright lights to simulate longer days, and dark cloth to cover the plants, thereby simulating shorter days. By using the right combination of light and dark, you can stimulate holiday cactus to bloom almost any time of the year. If you really don’t care about the blooming period and are willing to let the plants bloom based on the normal photoperiod, there are just a couple of things to remember. Cool night temperatures (55-60°F) in combination with natural Wisconsin photoperiod will successfully induce flowering. If the plants are left in a warm area of the house where temperatures stay above 60°, you will need to regulate the photoperiod. This can be done by covering the plant with black plastic, or moving it in and out of a dark room (such as a closet), so that it receives only about 10 hours of light per day. This needs to be done for about 4 weeks, after which buds will be appearing. Once flower buds start to appear, the plant can be returned to standard room conditions of light and temperature.
Holiday cactus plants in bud.
Once buds are starting to form, plants should not be moved into a new location with radically different light or temperature conditions, as many of the buds will stop developing and abort. When in bloom, flowers will last longer if not exposed to high temperatures. Plants should bloom for 2-3 weeks at temperatures around 70°.
A white holiday cactus flower brightened with a hint of pink.
If you want your plants to bloom at a very specific time, such as exactly at Christmas, you can do this by regulating light and temperature as described above. No specific guidelines can be given because each cultivar or hybrid has its own response to specific conditions. Therefore, you may need to experiment for a couple years to determine how to induce your plants to bloom under your growing conditions. Keep in mind that unregulated temperatures may either lengthen or shorten the period from bud initiation to full bloom.
Finding Holiday Cactus
Holiday cactus for sale.
Holiday cactus in a variety of colors are commonly available in garden centers and discount stores starting before Thanksgiving and into the Christmas period. Plants that are in full bloom at Thanksgiving will be done blooming by Christmas. If you want plants that are in bloom at Christmas time, you should look for plants in late November or early December that have well developed buds but no open flowers. Keep in mind that their surrounding temperature will determine how rapidly the buds develop and how long the flowers will last. In the couple of weeks before Christmas, stores often have plants that are done blooming; these do not sell and often are thrown out right after Christmas. Check with the store manager — you might get a real good price on such plants that should perform very well in the coming year.
Before you buy plants from local outlets, check them carefully to be certain they appear healthy and free of pests such as mites, mealybugs, and scale insects.
There are many internet sources for buying plants by mail – simply do a search for holiday cactus or Christmas cactus.
– Dan Mahr, University of Wisconsin – Madison
Wilting Christmas Cactus
My 84 year old mother-in-law has a large Christmas cactus that she has had since she was 14! It has always been in really great shape, but now is looking very wilted, even though her pattern of watering (about a cup every 2 weeks) has not changed. She did add soil from her garden to cover up some exposed roots.
Start by removing the garden soil added to the container. This soil is not suited to indoor container gardening and can contain disease organisms and insects that can be harmful to the plant. This is probably not the cause of the current problem. Wrinkled leaves are usually a sign of moisture problems. Too much or not enough water can cause these symptoms. Evaluate the growing conditions. Changes in light and temperature can change the plants watering requirements. Always water the soil thoroughly so the excess drains out the bottom. Pour off excess water. Wait until the soil is just slightly moist (when flowering) and top few inches are slightly dry (when out of bloom) before watering again. Adjust your watering schedule accordingly. Also check to see if the plant is potbound. If the water runs right through the soil and out the bottom, new growth is stunted or roots are growing out the drainage holes it may be time to transplant. Move the plant to a slightly larger pot. Use a sterile potting mix. You will then need to adjust your watering schedule.
Christmas Cactus Is Rotting: Tips On Treating Root Rot In Christmas Cactus
Christmas cactus is a hardy tropical cactus that brightens the environment with gorgeous, red and pink blooms around the winter holidays. Although Christmas cactus is easy to get along with and requires minimal care, it is susceptible to root rot. Usually, this dreaded fungal disease is not caused by inattention, but is the result of improper watering.
Signs of Root Rot in Christmas Cactus
A holiday cactus with root rot displays wilted, limp, sagging growth, but an inspection of the roots will tell the tale.
Remove the plant gently from its pot. If the cactus is affected by rot, the roots will display blackened tips. Depending on the severity of the disease, rotten Christmas cactus roots will be slimy with black or brown decay.
If you determine that your Christmas cactus is rotting, it’s critical to
act fast. Rot is a deadly disease and once it progresses, the only option is to discard the plant and start fresh. If part of the plant is healthy, you can use a leaf to propagate a new plant.
Treating a Holiday Cactus with Root Rot
If you catch the disease early, you may be able to save it. Remove the Christmas cactus from the container immediately. Trim away affected roots and rinse the remaining roots gently to remove fungus. Place the plant on a paper towel and put it in a warm, well-ventilated location so the roots can dry overnight.
Place the Christmas cactus in a dry pot with fresh, lightweight potting soil the next day. Be sure the pot has a drainage hole so the soil can drain freely. Wait a couple of days before watering the newly potted Christmas cactus.
When you resume watering, be sure you understand the most effective way to irrigate your Christmas cactus. Always water thoroughly until water drips through the drainage hole, then let the plant drain before returning the pot to its drainage saucer. Never let the plant stand in water.
Be careful not to kill the plant with kindness; slightly underwatered conditions are healthiest. Don’t water until the top ½ inch of soil feels dry. Water sparingly during the winter months, but don’t allow the potting mix to become bone dry.
Place the plant in bright sunlight during fall and winter and in light shade during spring and summer.