Though caring for Christmas cactus is relatively easy, it is picky about how and where it's grown if you want it to stay healthy and flower at the right time. With its pretty tendrils and colorful flower drops, the Christmas cactus is an attractive plant that adds vibrancy and prettiness to a festive display.
But it's important to learn how to grow a Christmas cactus – and to care for a Christmas cactus – properly to get the most from this attractive succulent.
'The Christmas cactus, scientifically known as schlumbergera, earned its name because it flowers right around the festive season,' says Rachel Martin, of Patch Plants. 'It’s also known as Thanksgiving cactus and holiday cactus, for the same reason. Basically, this plant loves a celebration, erupting in pink flowers to cheer up winter.'
We take a look at how to grow and care for Christmas cactus – the most popular of all Christmas plants and flowers.
How to grow and care for Christmas cactus
'Being an epiphyte, this plant in the wild would typically grow on the trunk or body of another plant or tree and live comfortably under the shaded canopy of foliage of its host so, in a home, it prefers partial sun, or dappled natural light,' says Keira Kay, Bloom & Wild plant expert.
'Unlike a lot of cacti, this plant doesn’t naturally live in hot, dry conditions,' says Patch Plants' Rachel Martin. 'In the wild, you’ll find it growing in shady spots in humid forests and jungles, generally in crevices in rocks or trees. Try to imitate those conditions in your home to keep it really happy and maximize flowering.
'It adapts well to quite low light, though in the growing season (roughly April to September) it likes some bright-ish light, to help it develop flowers, but the rest of the time it can live happily in semi-shade. The only thing it doesn’t like is direct sunlight, but otherwise it’s pretty easy-going,' concludes Rachel.
The Christmas cactus likes temperatures ranging between 60-70ºF (15-21ºC) in the home.
'The Christmas cactus is most happy in a well-draining, loose potting mix – I would suggest a blend of two parts compost, with one part fine bark and one part grit or pumice, to ensure no excess moisture or residue hangs around the delicate roots after watering,' continues Keira Kay.
'It likes its soil to be gently moist,' adds Rachel Martin.
'A monthly feed in spring and summer will help it grow more flowers. That little bit of extra work in the middle of the year will guarantee this plant a happy Christmas,' says Rachel Martin.
How to care for Christmas cactus indoors
According to Keira Kay, Christmas cactus likes to be frequently and thoroughly watered during its growth period, and likes to drain well, but remain slightly moist to the touch whilst in bloom, so watering every seven to 10 days is sufficient.
'The Christmas cactus prefers bright, indirect light. In a window with dappled light or a well-lit but a semi-shaded location is best in order for this plant to thrive.'
When to water Christmas cactus? She adds: 'When in dormancy and no longer flowering, the top an inch of soil can be allowed to dry between waterings, and frequency can be adjusted to every 14-20 days. The plant will not like sitting in water, as this can lead to root rot.'
Keira's top tips? She advises: 'The Christmas cactus likes humidity and will appreciate a misting or pebble tray under its nursery pot whilst in bloom and likes temperatures ranging between 60-70ºF (15-21ºC) in the home.
When is Christmas cactus' growing season?
The Christmas cactus' growing season is, you may be surprised to find, between April and September. It is during this time that you should look to repot Christmas cactus and to fertilize Christmas cactus.
Where do Christmas cactus grow best?
The Christmas cactus grows best in a spot that offers dappled or partial shade with a room temperature of around 70°F and 80°F. An east- or west-facing windowsill would work, though ensure it isn't left in a draft or exposed to strong sunlight for too long. If you can ensure the room is a little humid that will benefit the plant, though you can fix this with misting.
Can a Christmas cactus survive outside – or will it freeze?
A Christmas cactus can survive happily outside – that is, after all, its natural habitat. However, if temperatures drop to freezing point, or indeed if there is a long spell of dry heat, the plant won't tolerate it. Christmas cactus, like many other plants, doesn't enjoy extremes, so aim to keep the conditions humid and the temperature between 60-70ºF (15-21ºC), and only allow it to become cooler when you are prepping the plant for blooming again. Remember too that to force blooming, it needs to be kept in the dark for the majority of the day; six hours of daylight will be enough.
Why is my Christmas cactus having blooming problems?
The Christmas cactus requires very little care but can become a little leggy or congested after blooming, says Keira.
'If the plant is looking sparse, cut back a few of the tips to see it bush out a little more,' she advises.
'If the plant is too full, remove some of the older stems at the base to encourage new growth.'
You also need to pay attention to conditions to ensure you can make a Christmas cactus bloom again. Leave it in the wrong place and you won't get the flowers you would expect from November onwards.
How can you tell if a Christmas cactus is healthy?
Signs that your Christmas cactus is healthy are plump green leaves and plenty of blooms. It's easy to spot, though when it is unhealthy. Look out for wrinkled, puckered leaves, a sign of under-watering, or leaves that are brown, or dotted with black or red spots, which could be a sign of over-watering. In both cases, check the pot: if it's bone dry, give the plant a water, but don't leave the roots to sit in wet soil. If the plant pot is wet, remove it, and then snip off any rotting roots before washing the rest of any mould that will spread. Then repot, ensuring there is no water for the roots to sit in.
Can you grow a Christmas cactus from a cutting?
'Christmas cacti are incredibly easy to propagate, and you can do so with a healthy Y-shaped cutting direct from the stem – approximately two to four segments are enough,' suggests Keira Kay.
'Allow them to sit for a couple of days so the cut can blister and begin to heal. Pop into a small vessel filled with a loose, sandy potting mix, mist with water sparingly for three to 12 weeks until new roots develop, then pot up individually. It is best to take cuttings in spring.'
You can find out more about propagating Christmas cactus in our dedicated feature.
What is a Christmas cactus?
Schlumbergera truncata, aka the ‘Christmas Cactus’, is a type of epiphytic succulent, recognised by its flat, glossy segmented stems and its impressive red, pink, purple, or white flowers.
This festive house plant takes its common name from the nature of when it blooms, typically coming into flower from late November to January, making it a wonderful Christmas gift or display.
With top tips from plant experts below, you can learn how to grow a Christmas cactus to wow this holiday season. And once you've got it? We have tips on how to care for Christmas cactus too.
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Ruth Doherty is an experienced digital writer and editor specializing in interiors, travel and lifestyle. With 20 years of writing for national sites under her belt, she’s worked for the likes of Livingetc.com, Standard, Ideal Home, Stylist and Marie Claire as well as Homes & Gardens.
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