A Cactus for Christmas

Having an indoor flowering plant during the festive season is a joy to behold! The beautiful Christmas cactus, Schlumbergera x buckleyi, gets its name from the season it which it blooms.

Although native to tropical Brazil, these plants are popular for their ability to survive the cold, dark nights of our winter months, blooming from the middle of November until late December and sometimes right through into January with the right care.

The long-lasting flowers of the Christmas cactus are profuse not just in seasonal red, but in white, purple, pink, and yellow.

About Christmas Cacti

Although they are cacti, this group of plants is not desert-dwelling so should not be treated like other cacti or succulents. Originating in the shady, tropical forests of southern Brazil, they actually grow as epiphytes in trees where the branches meet, soaking up the high humidity, dappled sunlight, and warm temperatures. Unlike other cacti, they cannot tolerate sunny, dry conditions and they need watering more regularly than most succulents.

How to Care for a Christmas Cactus

  • Christmas cacti prefer a humid environment, which makes a bright bathroom or kitchen a good spot to keep them. 
  • Plants should be kept in bright, indirect light. An east-facing window is ideal. Too much direct sunlight can bleach the sensitive leaves.
  • A daytime temperature of 18-20°C (65-69°F) and an evening temperature of 15-18°C (60-65°F) is preferred.
  • In the summer, when the risk of frost has passed, Christmas cacti can be placed in a shady spot in the garden, out of direct sunlight, or in an unheated porch until temperatures get below 50°F (10°C). This will help to ripen new growth and encourage flowering. 
  • During autumn and winter, feed cacti monthly to encourage successful blooming. Apply a high potassium fertiliser every two weeks once buds form.
  • Christmas cacti grow well in potting mixes that are formulated for succulents. The important thing is that your potting soil drains well. 
  • Water every 2-3 weeks, but only water when the top one third of soil feels dry to the touch. For example, if the plant is in 6 inches of soil, water when the top 2 inches feel dry – use your finger to check. Soak the plant through to the roots until water runs through the pot’s drainage holes – do not let the plant sit in water, as that may cause root rot. 
  • After the plant has finished flowering, water sparingly until new growth starts to appear.
  • Prune plants in late spring to encourage branching and more flowers. Simply cut off a few sections of each stem, the plant will branch from the wound.
  • The cuttings can be placed in a lightly moist potting soil—they root easily after a few weeks and make perfect Christmas presents! 

How to Get Your Christmas Cactus to Bloom

The blooms of Christmas cacti and its relatives are triggered by the cooler temperatures and darker nights of autumn. If your cactus is not blooming, it may be receiving too much light or temperatures which are too high.

To trigger blooming, the plant need between 12-14 hours of darkness for around 6 weeks to be able to set buds. If you have strong indoor lighting on at night, you may need to cover your cactus or move it to an area exposed to the natural light cycle.

To make sure your cactus blooms well, fertilize monthly from June through August with a balanced houseplant fertilizer at half-strength.

After flowering, a resting period is required. From late January to late March, reduce the watering to occasional watering so that the compost does not completely dry out and reduce the temperature to 10-15°C (50-60°F) by moving the plant to a cooler room.

From mid-September, the flowering buds start to develop with shortening days and a reduction in temperature. The watering and temperature should be reduced as before with a second resting period until the flowering buds have formed, then increase the temperature back to 18-20°C (65-69°F) and resume regular watering

Your plant should then flower and give you a wonderful display. Exact temperatures are not critical to promote flowering, provided there are two resting periods with a reduction in watering and temperature.

What’s the Difference Between a Christmas, Thanksgiving, and Easter Cactus?

There are three main types of holiday cacti out there, typically blooming closest to the holiday that it’s named after: the Easter cactus, Schlumbergera gaertneri, the Thanksgiving cactus, Schlumbergera truncata, and the Christmas cactus, Schlumbergera x buckleyi

The shape of the leaves, which are actually stems, vary slightly across all three, with Thanksgiving cacti having serrated edges, Christmas cacti featuring leaves which are more tear-dropped in shape, and the leaves of the Easter cactus have more rounded edges.

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