Holiday cacti are beautiful houseplants—much different than other cacti—providing flowers at Thanksgiving, Christmas, or Easter, depending on the variety. They all require the same basic care and methods for encouraging flowers.
If you love winter flowers, these tips for reblooming poinsettias will also keep your home colourful.
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Holiday Cactus Care
If you don’t read anything else, here’s what you need to know. Holiday cacti get their common names depending on when they bloom indoors, so you can choose a Thanksgiving, Christmas, or Easter cactus, depending on when you want flowers.
Once you’ve had the plant a while, there are tricks (listed below) for persuading the plant to bloom when you want it to. You can’t change its nature but you may be able to shift its timing somewhat. I’ve also provided basic care tips to keep them happy and flowering for years to come.
|1 Types of Holiday Cacti
||7 Frequently Asked Questions
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These tips are general and there are plenty of exceptions: it’s a hybrid world out there!
1 Schlumbergera truncata | Thanksgiving cactus (United States) | Christmas cactus (Canada)
“Claw cactus” or “Crab cactus”
The quickest way to identify a Thanksgiving cactus is to check the leaves for pointy edges and note the time of year it flowers.
- This is the most common holiday cactus sold in stores due to qualities making them more convenient to mass produce, ship, and display.
- They are easy to spot due to the points on the leaf edges that may resemble little saw blades or pointed teeth.
- These flowers grow horizontally, have differently-shapped upper and lower sides (zygomorphic), and yellow pollen.
2 Schlumbergera x buckleyi | Christmas cactus (United States)
- Originally a hybrid between Schlumbergera russelliana and Schlumbergera truncata, your Schlumbergera x buckleyi may have all scallop-edged leaves, or scalloped and pointed ones.
- These flowers are symmetrical, have pink pollen, and tend to grow downward.
3 Schlumbergera bridgesii | Christmas cactus (years ago)
Years ago, this one was considered The Christmas Cactus, although the buckleyi now seems to dominate the title. You can read about the dispute/history here.
- This one tends to have more rounded leaves with scalloped-edges
The Schlumbergeras can bloom twice a year, first between October and February, and then between March and May, with white, pink, orange, or red flowers.
4 Rhipsalidopsis | Easter Cactus
- Besides the later flowering time, you’ll also notice the shape of the Easter Cactus flowers is quite different from Schlumbergeras.
- Look for flat leaves with slightly scalloped edges, and round, upward-facing flowers.
These are sometimes also confused with Orchid Cacti, which are epiphyllum hybrids. The name and identification confusion never stops!
Easter Cactus Trivia: While long touted as a different genus, subgenus Rhipsalidopsis has recently been transferred into Schlumbergera, though this change has yet to be adopted by many Cactaceae authorities (Source). It will be interesting to see if this change is embraced as time goes on.
More Help: This article has some illustrations and descriptions of the differences between various holiday cacti: Recognition and Culture of the Holiday Cacti.
Because it’s confusing! It’s easy to mix up holiday cacti for several reasons:
- There have been many taxonomic name changes over the past two hundred years for these plants.
- The common names (by holiday) cause further confusion because they can vary by region. A Thanksgiving cactus in the United States is a Christmas cactus in Canada, probably because the Canadian Thanksgiving is in the first half of October, long before this one flowers.
- Some of the plants look really similar. The Schlumbergeras produce similar flowers (in a range of colours) with subtle differences. There are some hybrids that are very hard to discern!
- And finally, with some specific actions (listed below) we can alter flowering times, so a ‘Thanksgiving’ cactus may bloom at Christmas time or vice-versa.
But the good news is, you just need to provide the basic care, which is the same for all of them, and your plant will do fine.
It’s always helpful to know the origin of a plant to better understand the best growing conditions to provide in your home.
- Holiday cacti originated in the rain forests of Brazil with warmth, humidity, and indirect light, so their needs are different from desert cacti.
- These epiphytic plants have aerial roots that grow attached to other trees. This tells us that they should not sit with their feet in water, as they grow high off the ground in nature.
Light: Bright, indirect natural light.
Water: Allow potting mix to dry between waterings. Empty saucer after watering.
Overwatering will stress the plant and cause buds to drop off. In most homes watering is needed every 1-3 weeks.
Temperature: 65-75 °F (18-23 °C) until it’s time to force into bloom.
Soil: Use a potting medium made for cacti.
Root Space: Prefers to be slightly pot-bound. Repot every few years.
Humidity: 50-60% is ideal. If home is not humid, provide a saucer filled with pebbles and water underneath the pot, without allowing pot to touch the water.
Fertilize: A few months after flowering is done, begin using organic cactus plant food following instructions on container. Stop during budding and flowering cycles.
Organic Cactus Food
Want to save or print the holiday cactus care tips?
- Look over all the plants for sale. Are they perky? Nice, deep leaf colours? Well-cared for? Disease in one can mean disease is spreading to all of them.
- Examine the specific plant you want for any signs of distress.
The plant should be robust, deep green in colour, soil should be moist (press your finger tip in to check).
- Examine the plant under bright light looking for any insects, mold, or fungi. Reject if any are present.
Time Your Flowers Right
- If you want flowers now, buy one with flowers now.
- If you want flowers in a few weeks, buy one with buds.
- If you want one to flower at another time of year, buy one without buds.
Two months before desired bloom time, move to an indoor space and provide these conditions:
- 12-14 hours of darkness every 24 hours; moderate light for rest of time. Be mindful of streetlights and other light sources: it’s all light to the plant.
- Temperature range: 50-65 °F (10-15 °C).
If room is not cool enough, increase darkness time to compensate.
- Water less frequently than normal.
Buds will gradually form and then flower.
At this stage, gradually increase light and temperatures going back to normal care routine.
Overwatering can cause buds to drop, so error on the side of caution and allow soil to dry between waterings.
If you want to propagate new plants, all it takes is some leaf cuttings. I like to start with a piece with 3-4 leaf sections.
This should be done when the plant is not budding or flowering.
It’s considered best to pinch off a section at a join rather than cutting with scissors or a blade.
- Some gardeners first allow the cuttings to callus over for a few days, which decreases any risk of disease affecting the wounds.
- Others plant them in moistened cacti potting mix right away.
- Some root the cutting in a shallow dish of water. I’m never convinced this way produces strong roots.
Either way, plant the leaf stems about one half-inch deep in small pots of cactus potting mix when you’re ready and provide basic care (listed above).
Slightly warmer than usual temperatures between 71-81 °F (21-27 °C ) help speed up rooting.
1 Why did my Christmas cactus drop its flower buds?
Here’s some possible reasons:
- Sudden change in temperature. These guys like temperatures to remain steady in their comfort range.
- Overwatering causes stem and root rot, which can, in turn, cut off water to rest of plant and cause bud drop.
- Low humidity can cause bud drop.
- Pests are not common but mealybugs and soft brown scale can also cause bud drop.
2 Why are the leaves on my Christmas cactus limp?
- Overwatering is a common cause. If your soil is moist, let it dry before watering again and reduce your watering schedule.
- Root bound: if your plant has not been repotted in several years, it may be time to move up a pot size.
3 How often do you water a Christmas cactus?
- Watering always depends on the unique conditions within your home, but, in general, holiday cacti can be watered every 1-3 weeks.
- Check the soil with your finger tip or a moisture meter and water when it’s near dry.
4 Can you put a Christmas cactus outside in the summer?
- Yes, if you live somewhere with the right weather conditions. Avoid direct sun, provide indirect light, and temperatures in the range of 65-75 °F (18-23 °C) are ideal.
- In some locations, the transition into fall weather provides just what the plant needs to begin budding (and then flowering indoors).
5 How do I keep my Christmas cactus blooming?
You can’t really prolong blooming beyond what is natural for the plant, but you can make efforts to prevent shortening it.
- Water carefully, leaning toward under— and never over—watering.
- Keep the plant away from temperature swings (drafty windows, forced air heat).
- Keep the plant out of direct light.
- Do not fertilize during flowering time.
6 How can I revive my Christmas cactus?
This will depend on what caused your plant to suffer.
- Read over the basic care tips and figure out what was missing.
- If there are not pests or diseases present, you may be able to revive the plant by providing basic, consistent care (without over-doing it).
- Other times, just parts of the plant are worth saving. In that case, take stem cuttings and root them in soil as described here.
7 When should I cut back my Christmas cactus?
Often a Christmas cactus will bloom twice within a few months but that’s it for a year.
- After the second flowering can be a good time to prune the plant if it needs some assistance to achieve a healthier, more pleasing shape.
- Any healthy stems you remove can be rooted for new plants.
8 Do Christmas cactus need full sun?
No, these plants originate as jungle plants which means they like indirect light, warmth, and humidity, but never wet roots.
9 How do I get my Christmas cactus to bloom again?
Thanksgiving and Christmas cacti in the Schlumbergera family often flower twice: first between October and February, and then between March and May.
Sometimes the conditions in our homes are favourable for budding and flowering, other times we may have to assist the plant with these tips.
A second flowering session may also occur naturally (if conditions are again favourable), or the plant may need encouragement after first flowering is done.
When all flowering is done, it’s time to begin fertilizing for six months to add nutrients for future blooms. Use organic cactus food and follow the instructions on the product label.
- Christmas Cactus Care | Illinois Extension Office
- How to Grow and Care for Holiday Cactus | worldofsucculents.com
- How to Delay Holiday Cactus Blooming | hortmag.com
Good luck with your holiday cactus. And remember to put a reminders in your calendar to remember to force blooms (two months ahead) and begin fertlizing (after flowering is done).
~Melissa the Empress of Dirt ♛