How to Care for Your Christmas Cactus Indoors
Thanks to its colorful flowers that bloom in winter, the Christmas cactus (Schlumbergera x 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 (and more holidays) to come.
What Is a Christmas Cactus?
Things can get confusing since there are three types of holiday cacti: Christmas, Thanksgiving, and Easter. Each type of 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 3 feet!). Each flower—which is typically about 3 inches long—lasts for several days, though the entire flowering period typically spans about two weeks.
How to Care for a Christmas Cactus
Christmas cacti are relatively easy to grow, says Tanner Allen, Horticulturist and Product Development Manager at Westerlay Orchids, so long as you understand their basic needs.
The Christmas cactus has very specific lighting needs when it comes to blooming—more on that later—but for the best results, give the plant filtered sun. Allen says they prefer bright, indirect light. Place them "near a window, but not in direct light," he says.
Like many other plants in the cactus family, these blooming beauties do not like to have "wet feet" which is why you want to make sure you're using a soil that will allow them to dry out between waterings. Allen suggests a well-draining succulent and cacti soil mix.
Don't let the "cactus" part of this houseplant's name fool you: This species doesn't like to be quite as dry as some of its more arid cousins. Water when the top third of the soil feels dry. Allen says that you should reduce watering to initiate flowering in the fall.
If you want to give your Christmas cactus a boost, Allen says you can do so using any general liquid or granular fertilizer with a balanced NPK (nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium) ratio. "Apply during the growing season, generally spring and summer," he says. According to Satch, you'll need to fertilize every two weeks during this active growth period.
While these plants tend to put on their best show in the winter, they don't like to get too chilly. Allen says your Christmas cactus prefers temperatures that range between 60 and 70 degrees Fahrenheit, but that it can tolerate temperatures as low as 50 degrees. And if your home is particularly dry, place a shallow bowl of water nearby to help humidify the air—Christmas cacti like it balmy.
How to Force a Christmas Cactus 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 moving your plant closer to a window, as this is your plant's way of telling you that its daytime light isn't bright enough.
How to 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.
Pests and Diseases to Watch For
Unfortunately, you're not the only one who loves seeing a Christmas cactus in your home. According to Zackary DeAngelis, CEO and founder of Pest Pointers LLC, mealybugs can be a major nuisance for this plant. "Mealybugs can suck the nutrients from Christmas cactus and produce a sugary substance called honeydew, which can lead to an increase of ants inside the home that target the plant," he says. "Plus, the production of honeydew can lead to sooty mold on your Christmas cactus, which leaves a black, unsightly residue on the plant over time." Spider mites are common on Christmas cacti too.
How to Remove Pests from Christmas Cacti
To avoid these issues, DeAngelis suggests routinely checking your Christmas cactus for signs of mealybugs and other common indoor plant pests, such as spider mites. "Mealybugs can be identified by their powered wax outer layer," DeAngelis says. "Spider mites, which are common on indoor succulents, can be identified by a very small webbing that will extend around the edges of the cactus."
If you happen to find either of these pests invading your home, you can quickly tackle them using an insecticidal soap spray, which DeAngelis says will help to control and eliminate the insects on contact.