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Christmas cactus: origin, care & tips

Given the right location and care, the Christmas cactus will brighten up your home with an abundance of beautiful blossoms. But where should you place it in your house and how should it be watered and fertilised?

Christmas cactus with red and white flowers next to window
A bright spot on a windowsill is ideal for the Christmas cactus [Photo: Nadezhda Nesterova/ Shutterstock.com]

Most varieties of the Christmas cactus (Schlumbergera x buckleyi) that can be bought in winter are hybrids. They are a cross of different wild species native to tropical and subtropical areas of Brazil. Because of its tropical origins, the Christmas cactus has special requirements when it comes to location and care.

Tip: Depending on temperatures and light, the Christmas cactus can even flower more than once a year.

Christmas cactus: origin and characteristics

The wild species of the genus Schlumbergera grow on the ground or perched on trees as so-called epiphytes. Epiphytes do not come into direct contact with the ground, but sit on trees or larger plants – however, they are not parasites to their supports. The leaves that make up the plants’ shoots are not actually leaves, but rather they are platyclades. The platyclades carry out photosynthesis in place of the leaves. The edges of the individual shoots are usually toothed with bristles and colourful flowers on the ends. The long shoots can reach down to a length of about 40 cm, making the Christmas cactus look beautifully decorative in a hanging pot. Depending on the variety, they come in very different colours, from white to yellow to red and pink. What makes the Christmas cactus special is its flowering time. In the northern hemisphere, where it is also called a Thanksgiving cactus, it typically flowers, between November and February.

Christmas cactus with vivid pink flowers
Its long, trailing shoots make the Christmas cactus look beautiful in a hanging pot too [Photo: Terentieva Yulia/ Shutterstock.com]

What is the difference between Christmas cactus and Easter cactus? The biggest difference between the Christmas cactus and Easter cactus (Hatiora x graeseri) is the flowering time. As the name suggests, the Easter cactus flowers in spring rather than in winter like the Christmas cactus. The Easter cactus also belongs to a completely different plant genus, namely Hatiora. The flower and platyclade shapes of the two genera are also different.

Schlumbergera species and varieties

As already mentioned, Christmas cacti that are kept as houseplants are hybrids of wild species. In the wild there are about six different species, but not all are suitable for indoor cultivation. Here are some well-known schlumbergera varieties:

Two Christmas cacti with yellow and pink flowers
The Christmas cactus comes in many colours [Photo: DigitalPearls/ Shutterstock.com]
  • Schlumbergera ‘Victoria’: a white Christmas cactus variety
  • Schlumbergera ‘Thor Sophia’: a Christmas cactus with yellow-orange flowers
  • Schlumbergera ‘Thor Olivia’: blooms with orange-red flowers
Christmas cactus with purple flowers
Purple or pink flowers are popular in Christmas cacti [Photo: Maren Winter/ Shutterstock.com]
  • Schlumbergera ‘Esperito Brasil’: flowers in vivid pink
  • Schlumbergera ‘Christmas Flame’: produces salmon-coloured flowers
  • Schlumbergera ‘Samba Brasil’: multicoloured flowers that are white inside and turn from yellow to orange to red towards the outer edge of the petals.
A close-up of red and white Christmas cactus flower
Multi-coloured flowers are also possible [Photo: Zulashai/ Shutterstock.com]

How to choose the right location for your Christmas cactus

The Christmas cactus does not tolerate temperatures below 10 °C, so it is best kept as a houseplant. In summer, however, you can place the plant outside. Whether indoors or outdoors, the Christmas cactus should always be in partial shade, as it does not like full sun. However, keep an eye on the temperatures in autumn: if it drops below 10 °C, be sure to bring your Christmas cactus back inside to avoid damage from the cold.

The ideal location for the Christmas cactus:

  • Room temperatures of 19-23 °C are ideal. Avoid temperatures below 10 °C.
  • Keep mainly as a houseplant.
  • If temperatures permit, it can be placed outdoors in summer.
  • Choose a partially shaded location. Christmas cacti do not tolerate full sunlight.
Houseplant Christmas cactus with vivid pink flowers
During its flowering phase, the Christmas cactus feels at home indoors [Photo: Boryana Manzurova/ Shutterstock.com]

In order to get your Christmas cactus to bloom, it is important to encourage budding in autumn. To do this, place the Christmas cactus in a slightly cooler place (around 15 °C) from September onwards. On top of this, reduce your Christmas cactus’ light exposure to a maximum of nine hours per day. A room in which no light is switched on in the evening is best. Alternatively, you could place a cardboard box over the plant to reduce light in the evening. When the Christmas cactus flower buds start to form, increase the light exposure and the temperature (around 20 °C). These conditions can then be maintained until summer.

  • Reduce the temperature to about 15 °C to encourage flowering.
  • Reduce light to a maximum of 9 hours per day, avoid any extra light outside of this.
  • As soon as flower buds form, return to a bright location and increase the temperature to 20 °C.
  • Allow the plant to remain in a bright and warm location from winter through summer.
Close-up of light pink flower buds on Christmas cactus
To encourage flowering, cool temperatures and short days are important [Photo: SasaStock/ Shutterstock.com]

Even if Christmas cacti are not planted out in flower beds, soil is still important for root development within its pot. Potting soil with a pH value of 5.5 to 6.0 is ideal. The soil also needs to be as well-draining as possible, as the Christmas cactus is highly sensitive to waterlogging. You can make the soil more permeable by adding sand − one part sand to three parts soil. Additionally, a drainage layer at the bottom of the pot can protect the Christmas cactus from waterlogging. This should be made up of a coarse material such as broken clay or pebbles.

Christmas cactus soil:

  • Create a drainage layer.
  • A potting soil with pH value of 5.5 to 6.0 is ideal.
  • Make sure soil is loose and water permeable.
  • Mix in sand if necessary to increase permeability and prevent waterlogging (1 part sand to 3 parts soil).

Christmas cactus care

Care for Christmas cacti changes from season to season. In autumn and spring, the Christmas cactus is in its dormant phase, the growth phase for shoots is in summer and in winter. From November to February, the Christmas cactus is in its flowering phase. The dormant phases are very different from the growth and flowering phases in terms of care. Since vigorous growing shoots also produce more flowers, the summer growth phase is especially important for abundant flowering in winter.

Watering the Christmas cactus properly

How often to water your Christmas cactus depends not only on the time of year, but also on temperature and location. During the flowering period, make sure the soil is always slightly moist. In the dormant phase that follows flowering, reduce watering but avoid letting the Christmas cactus dry out completely. When the beginning of the growth phase can be seen in the new shoots, increase watering again. In autumn, during the dormant phase before flowering, reduce watering once more.

Watering Christmas cactus with pink and white flowers
During flowering, the Christmas cactus should be watered about once a week [Photo: Olga_Anourina/ Shutterstock.com]

If you put your Christmas cactus plant outdoors during summer months, water it every 2 to 3 days. Be sure to choose a sheltered spot to prevent it from getting waterlogged on rainy days. Keep the soil moderately but evenly moist. Either too much moisture or complete drought will have a negative effect on the development of the Christmas cactus during growth and flowering phases. During dormant phases, you can more or less stop watering. As rainwater in its native habitat is acidic, it is best to use lime-free water for your Christmas cactus.

Summary: Watering the Christmas cactus

  • In winter, during flowering, keep the soil slightly moist.
  • In spring, when the plant is dormant, reduce watering, but do not let the soil dry out.
  • In summer, during the growing season, water regularly and keep the soil slightly moist.
  • In autumn, with the dormant phase before flowering, reduce watering considerably, almost completely.
Drops of water on Christmas cactus leaves
Regular spraying with lime-free water is good for the Christmas cactus [Photo: Oksana Shpakova/ Shutterstock.com]

Tip: The Christmas cactus also appreciates high humidity. So, spray it occasionally with lime-free water to keep the plant happy.

How to fertilise the Christmas cactus

During the growth phase, the Christmas cactus is dependent on fertiliser, even if its nutrient requirements are low. This is only necessary during the growth period in summer: apply fertiliser to the Christmas cactus roughly every four weeks during the growth phase from April to September. Use a liquid fertiliser such as our Plantura Liquid Houseplant Food. This is simply applied when watering and a good choice for most potted houseplants. The nutrients from a liquid plant food are also more readily available and easy to absorb than fertiliser granules or compost.

Christmas cacti with new leaves
The Christmas cactus only needs to be fertilised during its flowerless growth phase [Photo: J K Laws/ Shutterstock.com]

Summary: Fertilising Christmas cactus

  • Fertilisation is not necessary during flowering and dormant periods.
  • Apply fertiliser from April to September.
  • Follow the fertiliser instructions for the correct application.
  • Fertilise about every four weeks during the growth phase.
Plantura Liquid Houseplant Food
Plantura Liquid Houseplant Food
Liquid fertiliser with an NK ratio of 3-4, for all houseplants, promotes healthy plant growth, child & pet friendly

Why does my Christmas cactus have limp or yellow leaves?

These are the most common causes for yellowing or limp leaves on Christmas cacti:

  • Waterlogging: Like most houseplants, the Christmas cactus does not tolerate waterlogging. It may even drop shoots if it experiences waterlogging. If the soil is damp and smells bad, repot your Christmas cactus in fresh soil. Add a drainage layer at the bottom of the pot to ensure that the water can always drain off well. Remove any excess water 15 minutes after watering.
  • Drought: Drought is a much less common cause of limp leaves in Christmas cactus. However, if the soil feels dry near the roots, water more regularly. Be sure to use lime-free water.
  • Nutrients: Regular fertilising is important for the Christmas cactus during the growing season to keep it healthy. However, do not overdo it. The plant’s nutrient requirements are quite low, so too many nutrients can risk spoiling the Christmas cactus’ abundant flowering. That said, too few nutrients can also be responsible for yellow and limp leaves.
A Christmas cactus with yellowing leaves
Yellow and limp leaves are usually a sign of waterlogging [Photo: Renata.Ka/ Shutterstock.com]

Red leaves on a Christmas cactus: If the Christmas cactus’ leaves turn red, this is a likely sign of too much direct sunlight. In this case, move your cactus to a less sunny location.

Overwintering

The Christmas cactus is not winter hardy. As a tropical plant, it needs temperatures above 10 °C all year round. Especially in winter, during the flowering period, place the plant in a bright, warm spot.

If the Christmas cactus is well cared for and develops healthily, you can easily use it to propagate new plants. Read our follow up article to find out how to propagate, prune and repot the Christmas cactus.

Katja

I study landscape ecology and through my studies have discovered a love for plants. Plants are not only beautiful, but also have countless fascinating survival strategies. To bring a bit of nature into my home as well, I nurture my houseplants and herbs on every possible windowsill.
Favourite fruit: rhubarb and all kinds of berries
Favourite vegetables: onions and garlic