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How to care for a Christmas cactus, the festive, tropical plant

Encourage blooms with these Christmas cactus care tips

The Christmas cactus, often referred to as the "holiday cactus," is a low-maintenance and lovely plant. The beautiful pink and red flowers that appear from Thanksgiving to the new year can add festive cheer to any home, making these plants nearly as popular as poinsettias. No matter what holidays you celebrate, these cacti will brighten any dreary winter days that come your way.

Difficulty

Easy

Duration

1 hour

What You Need

  • Flower pot or container

  • Cactus-specific potting soil

  • Sharp, clean pair of scissors

Despite sharing a name, did you know that the Christmas cactus is actually different from the holiday cactus? The holiday cactus (Schlumbergera x buckleyi) is in the same family as both Christmas and Thanksgiving cacti but is a different variety. If you’ve already got some of those little guys in your collection, why not pick up a Christmas cactus, too? If you're wondering how to care for a Christmas cactus, we've got you covered with some tips and tricks ahead.

Christmas cactus with flowers in a pot
Boryana Manzurova / Shutterstock

Why you should grow one (or tons!) in your home

The Christmas cactus is an easy-to-care-for plant that, when cared for well, will reward you with stunning orange, pink, purple, red, or white blooms during the holiday season. While most other houseplants have entered dormancy and aren’t flowering, you’ll be able to enjoy pops of color from this (non-spiney!) cactus, especially when you pair it alongside a few poinsettias.

If you can get your hands on some Christmas cacti that have different colored blooms, it may be worth growing more than one! They shine as hanging basket plants, and their unique shape still offers beautiful greenery during the seasons when they aren’t blooming.

Is the Christmas cactus different from the Thanksgiving or Easter cactus?

Yes and no! All three are types of holiday cacti; however, they’re different varieties that are often mislabeled for one another (and for the holiday cactus in general). The Christmas cactus (Schlumbergera russelliana) is a variety bred from the holiday cactus (Schlumbergera x buckleyi) and the Thanksgiving cactus (Schlumbergera truncate). The two together result in the beautiful blooms and specific blooming time that the Christmas cactus has.

Let’s take a look at the other two:

  • The Thanksgiving cactus (Schlumbergera truncate). The Thanksgiving cactus starts blooming in late fall within a few weeks of Thanksgiving. Its flat stems have jagged edges, appearing somewhat like little claws.
  • The Easter cactus (Rhipsalidopsis gaetneri). The Easter cactus blooms in early spring, usually around March, and continues to bloom through May. You may even start seeing buds as early as February!

Although they’re all similar in appearance, they don’t bloom at the same time. If you want to create a dynamic feel for your space, try having one or two of each hanging in your home! That way, you’ll be able to enjoy blooms throughout a good part of the year.

Christmas cactus
TSViPhoto / Shutterstock

How to care for a Christmas cactus

Caring for a Christmas cactus isn’t complicated, especially if you’re already used to the nuances of other cacti varieties. However, there are still some differences. Here's how to care for your Christmas cactus.

Step 1: Keep your Christmas cactus in a high-humidity environment.

The Christmas cactus is native to humid, tropical environments instead of dry, arid ones. It needs much higher humidity levels (more so during their blooming season, due to the dry conditions of winter) than regular cacti.

Step 2: Place the Christmas cactus where it will be warm during the day and slightly cooler at night, especially when it begins to bloom.

The Christmas cactus prefers environments around 70 to 80 degrees Fahrenheit during the active growing season; however, once the buds start to set, it prefers a space that drops to 55 to 65 degrees Fahrenheit at night.

Step 3: Keep your Christmas cactus away from drafts.

Step 4: Place your cactus in partial or diffused light.

Step 5: Avoid placing it in direct light or full sun during spring, summer, and fall.

Step 6: Water it thoroughly and allow the soil to dry out completely before watering again.

Step 7: Prune your cactus after it has bloomed, using sterilized shears or scissors.

You can prune a Christmas cactus to help encourage branching and fuller growth! The best time to do so is right after it’s done blooming, though pruning can be done safely until late spring without posing much risk to the plant. Up to a third of the cactus can be removed without stressing the plant.

Step 8: Deadhead spent blooms.

Christmas cactus
Burkhard Trautsch / Shutterstock

Can a Christmas cactus be propagated?

Yes, and you can even use the trimmings as cuttings for new Christmas cacti! The best time to propagate lines up with the best time to prune (convenient, huh?), so you won’t have to worry about leaving some stems on the plant for propagation later on. Here's how to propagate a new Christmas cactus from cuttings:

Step 1: Prep a container filled with cactus-specific potting mix.

Step 2: Take a cutting or cuttings from your cactus with a sharp, clean pair of scissors.

Step 3: Store the cuttings somewhere dry for two to four days until the ends have callused.

You can skip this step if you don't have the space or time to let them dry. However, leaving cuttings to callus typically yields better results.

Step 4: Place the cut end of the cutting directly into the potting soil.

Step 5: Water lightly, letting the soil dry thoroughly between waterings.

Roots on viable cuttings should start to form within two to three weeks.

A Christmas cactus in full bloom
Simone Bottone / Shutterstock

The best way to encourage blooms on your Christmas cactus

If you’re wondering what you can do to get some beautiful blooms around the holiday season, the answer is simple: proper care. By caring for your Christmas cactus, you’re setting it up to have the energy, nutrients, and growth it needs to bloom.

Keep in mind that the more stems you have, the more places your cactus has to bloom! Pruning yearly benefits the plant in more ways than one, and it can even give you more cacti to hang around your home.

Christmas cactus with pink buds
Muecke / Pixabay

How often do you need to repot your Christmas cactus?

By now, you've probably figured out that Christmas cacti aren't all that difficult to maintain. We've got even more good news: You don't need to repot them very often, either. Christmas cacti can actually tolerate being a little rootbound, and they only need to be repotted every three to five years down the line. Here's how to repot your plant when the time comes:

Step 1: Wait until your blooms have all arrived before you start repotting.

The best time to repot is during the growing season after your Christmas cactus has finished blooming. This will be around late winter or early spring.

Step 2: Go for a planter that's bigger than your current one by two inches, and make sure that your planter has a drainage hole.

Step 3: Add a shallow layer of cactus soil to your new planter, then gently remove your plant from its current planter.

Step 4: Fill in the gaps with more cactus soil, then water your plant into its new home.

If you're looking for cheerful, easy-to-maintain foliage this holiday season, consider bringing home a Christmas cactus. You can enjoy lush blooms over the holidays and will have the chance to share cuttings down the line if you manage to keep a healthy plant going.

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Kiera Baron
Former Digital Trends Contributor
Kiera Baron is a freelance writer and editor, as well as a budding digital artist, based in Upstate NY. She is currently one…
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