There are a few plants in my collection that I’ve had for over a decade, champions that have overcome all odds and pulled through dark Canadian winters, lengthy vacations and neglect, and being put outside and left to their own devices to brave the elements, come what may. One of my most resilient plants is my Christmas cactus. Bound to the same pot for a good few years, at times dried to the bone or soaked to the hilt… Yet it blooms away as if just to show me that nothing can keep it down. And not only does it bloom, but it blooms beautifully—long, magnificent, trumpeted flowers that seem to last forever.
Our Tips for Christmas Cactus Care
Despite its name, the Christmas cactus is less a traditional desert-dwelling cactus, and more a tropical succulent. It is native to Brazil, where they grow off of tree branches and thrive in the filtered canopy light. What this means for tending to your Christmas cactus is that it should be cared for differently than your traditionally drought-resistant cacti or succulents (source.)
Light, Warmth, and Humidity
A Christmas cactus will thrive best in bright, indirect sunlight. Setting it near a north or east facing window would be best. However, it will adapt to lower light if needed (remember my Canadian winters!). It will bloom most readily in brighter light, and so that’s something to keep in mind if you have one that is stubbornly bud-less. Too much sun from either being placed in direct indoor sunlight (especially from west or south-facing windows) or from being sat outdoors without any shade or time to adapt to the harsher beams can burn its leaves.
Like most tropical plants, a Christmas cactus doesn’t like to be chilly and can slow its growth or suffer if it’s exposed to strong drafts or low temperatures. Room temperature is just fine, and I can speak from experience that I do leave mine outside until the nights drop to around 10C; while it doesn’t enjoy the chill for long, when I take it indoors for the season and it feels the warmth, it bursts right into bloom!
Humidity is best for these plants, as it mimics their natural growing conditions. If you have a bathroom with a bright window, that just might be its perfect spot. Kitchens can also work well if you boil a lot of water! An occasional misting (not too much, as you don’t want to cause any rot issues or attract pests), adding a humidifier, or keeping an open container of water nearby to evaporate can also help keep the moisture levels high.
Like many indoor houseplants, the Christmas cactus does best when watered according to how dry you find the surface. If the top few inches of soil feel dry, it’s time to water. This will likely be around the two week mark, but is variable depending on the heat, light, and moisture levels in your home. If you lift the plant and it feels really light, it’s likely quite dry, and may be another indication that it’s time for water. Be careful not to overwater, or you’ll see the leaves droop and fall off prematurely, and could cause the roots to rot.
When watering plants that like moisture but suffer when left sitting around in pools of water, I find that it’s best to carry them over to the sink and giving them a good solid minute of watering, then leave them to sit and drain fully before putting them back to their place.
Pots, soil, and propagation
Be sure to keep your plant in a pot with unobstructed drainage holes, and fill with well-draining soil—a mixture meant for succulents is fine, though most potting soils also work well if it isn’t too packed down. Never leave water to pool beneath your plant. Clay pots are helpful as the water can evaporate from the soil throughout, though you may need to keep a closer eye on watering if you’re in a hot, dry place. The size of pot you bring it home in will work well for at least the first few years (or more if you’re a bit neglectful like me!) In fact, when this plant becomes pot-bound, the stress makes it more likely to bloom. Win win!
If you’d like a whole indoor forest of Christmas cacti, simply pinch off a leaf at its segmented joint, and place it pinched side down into soil. Set the cutting in bright light, and water, and it should take root in a few weeks.
Bringing on the bloom
I used to think my Christmas cactus was blooming in completely unpredictable ways, and was often frustrated when it would skip a year without blooming, only to be rewarded by repeatedly flowering the next. If you’re really banking on the bloom, there are a few things you can do to optimize the chances of that happening. The first step is making sure to fertilize your plant and keep it fed during its peak growing season, generally between June and August in the Northern Hemisphere. When the outdoor temperature gets too cool, bring it in. For those few weeks before blooming, it’s recommended to give your plant 12-14 hours of dark to spark the bud growth. Cooler temperatures also helps at this point. Where I live, the natural darkness that comes with the cooler temperatures is enough to trigger a bloom, so it lights up like the proverbial Christmas tree when I first bring it in in early autumn, and typically gives another show sometime later in the winter.
Whether you’re looking for a beautifully blooming plant to brighten up your winter blahs, searching for something a little different to contrast with your current plant collection, or wondering what to bring for the host of your next holiday party, why not consider the easy to care for Christmas cactus? While the poinsettia is a lovely holiday plant in its own right, the bright bling of winter flowers on this pointy plant really sets it apart.1