- Unlike other succulents and cacti, the Christmas cactus is native to Brazil and prefers slight humidity.
- This succulent is named after the holiday season during which it blooms its magenta-colored flowers.
- Christmas cacti are quite hardy and can live for many decades with proper care.
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The dark winter season is a great time to bring in colorful plant additions to the home, especially those with a seasonal theme like the charming Christmas cactus (Schlumbergera bridgesii). While it may seem that this succulent would prefer the hot, dry environment of a desert-like other cacti, it is native to the tropical and humid rainforests of Brazil.
Karen Musgrave, marketing and e-commerce associate at the Long Island-based Hicks Nurseries, shares her best care tips for the colorful and hardy Christmas cactus.
Getting to know the Christmas cactus
Named after its flowering season in the Northern hemisphere, the Christmas cactus is identified by its small, tubular-shaped hot pink or candy red blooms that appear at the tips of its leaves.
There are three types of cacti also named after the holidays during which they bloom — the Easter cactus (S. gaertneri), which blooms from late winter to mid spring; Thanksgiving cactus (S. truncata), which blooms from late fall to mid winter; and Christmas cactus, which blooms from early to mid winter. All have quite a similar appearance and are commonly be referred to as Christmas cactus.
Like bromeliads, orchids, and moss, Christmas cacti are epiphytic, meaning they grow on the trunks of trees instead of soil like most plants. Because of this, the Christmas cactus prefers a care routine with a consistent yet minimal watering schedule and a coarse yet balanced potting soil that allows for optimal drainage.
Since the Christmas cactus is a little different in comparison to the average succulent, many tend to overwater it in hopes of replicating its tropical place of origin. A good rule of thumb is to water a Christmas cactus every one to two weeks in the spring and summer, and every three to four weeks in the fall and winter. In warmer zones, Christmas cacti can be misted daily, watering thoroughly only when the soil has completely dried out.
“The most common killer of cacti is over-watering,” says Musgrave. “It’s best to water your Christmas cactus only when the soil is dry to the touch about an inch down into the soil.”
During the summer, especially when the temperatures are over 90 degrees, Musgrave recommends reducing watering to every two weeks since these plants can go dormant when the temperature is too high and can survive on the water they have stored. One or two sprays of mist per week can give a Christmas cactus the slight humidity it needs in warmer temperatures.
Potting and fertilizer
Musgrave suggests a cactus-specific soil blend, usually known as succulent or cacti mix. This blend typically contains sand, perlite, and peat moss which are helpful ingredients in allowing proper drainage. A terracotta pot with a drainage hole is also recommended for a Christmas cactus.
“Christmas cacti are long-lasting, tough plants that can live for many decades with proper care,” says Musgrave. “They also don’t mind being a little bit pot-bound.”
To fertilize a holiday cactus, Musgrave suggests feeding it monthly in the summer and early fall as the buds begin to form, resuming monthly feeding after the plant has bloomed. A cactus/succulent fertilizer with a 15-15-30 NPK ratio is best, and be sure to follow the instructions on the label.
Light and temperature
Since Christmas cacti grow on trees under the dappled shade of the canopy above, they are great at tolerating low light conditions. However, the preferred light exposure is bright with no direct sun rays.
“An east-facing window with bright, indirect sunlight is best,” says Musgrave. “Although most cacti bloom in warm weather, Christmas cactus actually prefer cooler temperatures indoors around 60 to 70 degrees.”
Like all houseplants, the Christmas cactus can be susceptible to several pests and diseases, as well as root rot caused from overwatering. To avoid spreading infestations, always separate the infected plant from other plants until the problem has been contained.
“Possible pest problems can include mealybugs, aphids, or spider mites, so to control these infestations, an insecticidal soap is recommended,” says Musgrave.
Pruning is an essential part of a Christmas cactus’ health and growth since it encourages new blooms. Since this succulent doesn’t have the same leaf and stem system as a regular houseplant, pruning it requires cutting or pinching between segments or sections.
“The best time to prune a Christmas cactus is right after it has finished blooming,” says Musgrave. “Simply twist or cut the plant using pruning shears at its narrowest spot right between sections.”
Sharing Christmas cactus clippings is a traditional way to share the charm of this plant, especially as a holiday gift. Propagating it is similar to the propagation methods of most succulents. Musgrave recommends taking a cutting at least two segments — or leaf sections — setting them aside to dry out for about two to three days, away from any heat source.
“Drying the segments out will help you to avoid rotting later,” says Musgrave.
After they dry out, Musgrave says to plant the pieces in small pots using cactus soil, burying about an inch of the cutting. Put the planter in a cool spot that gets bright, indirect light and keep the cuttings well-watered to allow roots to form.
Despite its name, the Christmas cactus can be easily cared for and loved all year long. With a proper care routine that involves sparse watering, cool temperatures, bright yet indirect light, and a succulent potting mix, a Christmas cactus can bring you holiday cheer for years to come.