How to Grow and Care for a Christmas Cactus
Learn how to care for a Christmas cactus to ensure it blooms in time for the holidays.
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If a real Christmas tree isn’t your thing, if you live in a small apartment or if you just want to add a little more natural color to your holiday decor, you may want to consider a Christmas cactus. A lovely houseplant found all over the United States, this low-maintenance and pet-friendly plant is a popular choice among novice and expert gardeners. Its brilliant — usually pink — blooms delight onlookers year after year. Learning how to care for a Christmas cactus ensures that you’ll have those signature flowers when holiday guests arrive.
There are a few things you’ll need to do to help your Christmas cactus flower. When cared for correctly, these green beauties flourish indoors, growing to incredible sizes. Like many holiday houseplants, a Christmas cactus relies on lighting and temperature to bloom at the right time.
What Is a Christmas Cactus?
While it is a cactus, it is much different from desert cacti like the golden barrel cactus. The Christmas cactus (Schlumbergera x buckleyi) is known for its bright tubular flowers, which offer bold hues of magenta, pink, red, orange, purple and white for four to six weeks just when a burst of color is sorely needed. It’s a tropical plant native to Brazil, so it likes more water and humidity than the average cactus houseplant. If you tend to overwater other cacti, a Christmas cactus might be a better option for you.
Types of Holiday Cacti
The Christmas cactus is the best known member of a trio of holiday cacti — it has relatives that bloom around Thanksgiving and Easter.
Thanksgiving cactus (Schlumbergera truncata), also called crab claw or yoke cactus, is sometimes confused with Christmas cactus (or even sold as Christmas cactus so retailers get a head start on the season). Other than variations in the leaves and bloom times, there’s little difference.
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Easter cactus (Hatiora gaertneri) is the least common of the three, but it is incredibly similar in appearance and care. The main difference is that Easter cactus is a spring-blooming plant. According to the University of Arkansas Extension, the Easter cactus has more trumped-shaped flowers, and the segments have bristles between them and at the tips. The edges of the segments are often purplish.
How to Grow a Christmas Cactus
Once you get your Christmas cactus, just follow a few simple steps so that it can grow and thrive.
A Christmas cactus prefers indirect light. That’s one of the reasons it is such a common indoor plant. Miracle-Gro recommends placing your Christmas cactus near a north- or east-facing window. A Christmas cactus can tolerate some direct sunlight, but be careful about placing it in the hot afternoon sun. Too much light will cause discoloration in the leaves.
If you notice burning, move it away from the window. Christmas cactus blossoms fall off easily, so try to find the right lighting during its growth season to avoid moving the plant while it flowers.
A Christmas cactus needs plenty of food and water. Plant it in well-draining potting soil, then water when the top one or two inches are dry. Use Miracle-Gro Succulent Plant Food or a similar product between blooms to fuel fresh bud growth. Adding humidity to a dry home will also help your cactus thrive, especially in the winter.
How to Make a Christmas Cactus Bloom
Colorful flowers make the Christmas cactus a showstopper, and it will bloom more than once with the proper care.
Start by planting your cactus in the right pot. If the pot is too large, you’ll have fewer flowers, so don’t size up by more than a couple inches. Don’t re-pot while it blooms or you’ll lose all the flowers. A Christmas cactus likes crowded roots, so you won’t need to re-pot very often.
When Does a Christmas Cactus Bloom?
The Chicago Botanic Garden explains that a Christmas cactus’ bloom cycle depends on temperature and lighting cues. Decide when you would like your plant to flower. Start preparing eight weeks before your chosen date. For six weeks, give your plant 13 to 15 hours of darkness per day, or keep it in a cool environment at night, preferably below 68 degrees.
When you return the Christmas cactus to warmer temperatures and brighter light, flower buds will form — just in time for the holidays.