Like my grandmother, I have a hard time keeping any houseplant alive. She did know how to grow a Christmas cactus though. Hers was on a plant stand with tendrils cascading over and touching the floor. Almost everyone in the area had a plant from hers.
Often the Christmas cactus is passed down from generation to generation. Not only the mother plant, but all the plants propagated from its tendrils. Propagation from the Christmas cactus is one the easiest of all plants.
Even though it’s called a cactus, it’s vastly different from what we think of when we think of a cactus. Instead of a high dessert environment which most cacti love, the Christmas cactus prefers an environment similar to the orchid, the tropical rain forests of South America.
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How to Grow a Christmas Cactus
Light is the first thing we consider when placing our houseplants, especially those which are the best houseplants for clean air indoors. The Christmas cactus thrives in indirect, bright light. If you keep it indoors year round, it would love to be near a window or glass door. If you keep it outside during the spring and summer, be sure it’s kept in the shade. Granny kept hers under the big oak in the front yard.
If the Christmas cactus gets too much heat and direct sunlight, its growth will be stunted and the leaves will be burnt. It’s a good idea to keep them out of heavy traffic areas to avoid bruising. Keep them out of drafts and away from heating vents or other heat sources.
Since it prefers the tropical rain forest environment, you should provide a source of humidity especially if your climate is dry. You can do this by placing a shallow pan of water under the plant stand or near the plant. You can also place a watering tray filled with gravel under the plant. Fill the tray about half full of water and the evaporation will create the perfect 50-60% humidity the plant loves. Being in the deep south, Granny never had to worry about humidity levels.
The Christmas cactus doesn’t like dry soil and needs to be watered regularly so the soil stays moist. Watering should be done at the base of the plant, not over the green tendrils. When the plant is too dry, it’s health quickly disintegrates. This will cause its flower buds and leaves to fall off.
There needs to be balance because even though it likes to be moist, too much water can kill it. The leaves will fall off and it can die from overwatering. Less water is better than too much water. Before you water, check to see that the top inch of soil is dry.
Different Climates Will Require Different Watering Schedules
During your dry season or if you live in a dry climate, water your plant every few days. Keep in mind the watering tips we talked about before.
If you live in a humid climate, cool climate, or keep your plant indoors, once a week watering should be adequate.
When the temperatures cool off in the fall and winter, you’ll water less often to encourage blooming. We’ll talk more about this further on.
Soil and Fertilizing for Your Christmas Cactus
For Christmas cactus soil, I recommend using quality cacti or succulent soil. Also, mist the leaves when you water the base of the plant. Because potting soil isn’t being constantly revitalized from the earth and soil maintenance, it’s important to offer your Christmas cactus a fertilizer designed for blooming plants.
The joints of the Christmas cactus are fragile. If the plant is unhealthy, the plant will fall apart at the joints. It’s recommended to lightly fertilize the plant at least twice a year, preferably three to four times a year. You should only re-pot your Christmas cactus every few years since it actually prefers a tight root system. NOTE: You will want to stop fertilizing your Christmas cactus mid- to late-October in preparation for blooming.
Stop fertilizing and watering for the whole month of October. Keep the humidity levels up, don’t start watering again until November, then only keep the soil barely moist, not wet. As long as the humidity level is high, your plant will be fine with no watering. This is a vital part of kick starting the blooming season.
How to Care for a Christmas Cactus to Have Holiday Blooming
As the days and nights equal out in number of hours and cooler temperatures begin, the formation of flower buds in your Christmas cactus will be triggered. You can control this so you will have beautiful buds and blooms for four to six weeks through the holidays.
There are two schools, I guess three, on this process. One is using darkness alone and another is using temperature alone. The third is the one I get best results with. It’s a combination of darkness and temperature. I share this one, but the information is here so if you prefer to either use just temperature or just light to set blooms, you’ll find what you need to know about how to care for Christmas cactus to get beautiful blooms.
To get the blooming process started, six to eight weeks before Christmas place your Christmas cactus in a completely dark room for 12 hours at a time. The temperature will need to be around 60 degrees. Be sure to never expose your plant to freezing temperatures, it will die. Granny put hers in a closet.
During the day, place your Christmas cactus in a spot where it can be exposed to light for 12 hours. If you live in an area where there are only 8 hours or less of daylight in the fall and winter, you may have to use a grow light to supplement. This schedule will ensure you have a cactus covered in color all through the holiday season.
You will want to be careful in watering during this time. Never soak the soil. Saturated roots will cause your plant to drop leaves, flowers, and buds all at once ending your blooming season.
Bud drop is a real bummer. It has happened to me more than once. It is so frustrating! Like I said the Christmas cactus can be fragile and picky about its care.
Usually, bud drop means you’ve over-watered but the problem can also be too little light and humidity levels that are too low. If this happens to you, decrease watering and add just a little fertilizer to the plant, and give it more light. This should fix the problem if you catch it early enough and haven’t sogged the plant down like I did once.
Once you begin to see flower buds starting to form, you can return to a more normal life with your plant. Gradually increase the number of light exposure hours and amount of water. If you see flower buds forming too soon, decrease the temperature and increase the amount of dark hours to slow them down. When you’re ready for the blooming party, increase the temperature and light exposure and the plant will ramp up the process.
Once your plant has wowed you and your loved ones with its flashy flowering display, you should stop watering your Christmas cactus so it can have a well-deserved rest.
A month after blooming, it’s time to prune the plant. Snap off y-shaped sections at least three segments long from each stem. This will encourage new growth. We’ll talk about how to use these pruned pieces for propagation later on.
How to Grow a Christmas Cactus by Propagating for Sharing
This plant is a star in the propagating world. You can easily share your plant with others and create your own traditions by giving starts to friends and family. I had a work acquaintance once who shared a beautiful story with me.
Her grandmother had died and she was blessed to be the one who got her Christmas cactus. The plant had come from a plant her great-grandmother had given to her grandmother. All of her aunts had one since her grandmother had given it to them so they wanted her to have the treasured Christmas cactus.
For their first Christmas without her grandmother, she had started and brought to bloom a cactus for each of her cousins, cousins-in-law, and her dearest friends. They were all thrilled with the thoughtful gift. She gives them to new in-laws, daughters when they marry, all sorts of occasions. She always attaches a history of the plant and how to grow Christmas cactus instructions.
Isn’t that a beautiful story? You can do it too!
Steps to propagating your Christmas cactus:
- Use the segments you pruned or snap off more segments to have as many healthy plants as you want. Before you plant the segments allow them to dry for several hours to harden off.
- It’s best to start your transplants in three-inch pots. You should use the same type of soil as the mother plant was potted in. If it’s possible, add a little of the mother plant’s soil to the pot. Some people say it helps prevent soil shock.
- Have your pot ready and filled with soil. Push each segment into the soil to cover one-half of the first segment. Give it a little water just to moisten the soil. You don’t want to give it root rot by overwatering.
- Treat your new transplants like you do you mature Christmas cactus. It will take a month to six weeks before a strong root system is in place. When you see new growth you’ll know you have success. They will grow quickly and you should lightly fertilize when the start has produced one new segment.
- The new transplant should be fine in the three-inch pot for two to three years but if you notice it looking unhealthy, you may need to repot it sooner. If you keep it lightly fertilized, the soil shouldn’t get depleted before time to re-pot at two to three years.
Most people who share their tips on how to care for Christmas cactus recommend repotting in the Spring. They say this is best because it’s the dormant time for the plant since it’s not trying to bloom.
Repot like you would most any plant using fresh live soil. If you don’t make your own, be sure to purchase quality soil for your Chrismas cactus. Don’t put your plant in a pot which is too large for it. Like we said, it likes to have a tight root system or be pot-bound as some say.
Even being as careful as you can when repotting, I’ve not been able to repot without some plant damage. You can usually repot any broken pieces, but sometimes they are too bruised and even smashed to make it.
Caring for a Christmas cactus is a little more precise than say knowing how to care for a shamrock plant. This just makes it all the more exciting to me when I succeed!
Remember, with a little care, your Christmas cactus could be around to brighten the holidays for many generations to come. Who knows where and with whom it will be shared? Just imagine!
If you have tips on how to grow Christmas cactus, especially repotting tips, please share them in the comments below.
Safe and Happy Journey this holiday season,
Rhonda and The Pack