The holiday cactus is commonly given as a gift, purchased as decoration, and collected by houseplant enthusiasts. Because of its popularity around Thanksgiving and Christmas, it has sometimes been mistaken as a short-term plant, but this plant is capable of thriving in your home for decades.

This blog will cover how to keep your holiday cactus thriving for years to come, how to encourage it to bloom, and more!

Table of Contents

—- The Thanksgiving and Christmas Cactus are different species
—- How to tell whether you have a Thanksgiving or Christmas Cactus?

—- How much light does a holiday cactus need?
—- How do you water a holiday cactus?
—- What kind of soil should you use for a holiday cactus?
—- How often and what kind of fertilizer to use for a holiday cactus?

—- How do you get a holiday cactus to bloom?
—- Why do holiday cacti drop their buds?

—- When should you repot your holiday cactus?
—- When and how do you prune a holiday cactus?

—- What are some common problems with holiday cacti?

—- Where are holiday cacti found in the wild?

The Thanksgiving and Christmas Cactus are different species

There are two species of cacti that are commonly referred to as Thanksgiving and Christmas cacti. While the care for each is identical, it can be helpful to know which you have because the bloom times are different.

It would be logical to think that if you buy your cactus near Thanksgiving you are likely to have purchased a Thanksgiving cactus and the same would be true for Christmas. However, this is not the case.

The Thanksgiving cactus, Schlumbergera truncata, is sold as both Thanksgiving AND Christmas cacti often. These cacti are preferred for sale because they have a more upright appearance than the true Christmas cactus which hangs down over the sides of the pot.

The true Christmas cactus (scientifically referred to as both Schlumbergera x Buckleyi and Schlumbergera bridgesii) is more difficult to ship due to its droopy stems.

Because Thanksgiving cacti typically flower near Thanksgiving, they are tricked in greenhouses (with the use of artificial lighting) to bloom later in the season to coincide with Christmas.

SO if you purchase your Thanksgiving cactus around Christmas and want it to bloom at Christmas the following year, you may be disappointed when it blooms early. OR you may be excited anyway because the blooms are gorgeous and many people will take them ANY time of year! 🙂

How to tell whether you have a Thanksgiving or Christmas Cactus?

Thanksgiving cacti (Schlumbergera truncata) have points on their stem segments, resembling crab legs. This is where the holiday cactus has earned its other common name, Crab Cactus.

These stem segments are called cladodes, which is a botanical term to describe a stem that is flattened and leaf-like in appearance.

Christmas cacti (Schlumbergera x Buckleyi or Schlumbergera bridgesii) do not have the points on their stem segments. Instead, their edges are scalloped.

Peter Coxhead, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Schlumbergera_cultivar_stems.jpg
Picture shows the difference in stem structure between Christmas and Thanksgiving cacti.
The top cactus is Christmas (S. x Buckleyi); The bottom cactus is Thanksgiving (S. truncata)
.

How much light does a holiday cactus need?

Holiday cacti like bright, indirect light. Bright, indirect light means that plants thrive with a few hours of direct sunlight and indirect light the rest of the day.

For holiday cacti, an Eastern-facing window is often best because the direct sunlight in the morning is gentle– perfect for the sensitive stems of a holiday cactus that is prone to sun damage.

One way you can tell that your holiday cactus is getting too much light is when its stems segments begin to turn a reddish hue. This is an indicator that it is likely receiving too much direct light and would like to be moved a foot or two back from the window.

Two ways you can tell your holiday cactus is getting too little light is when (1) your cactus isn’t blooming during its normal bloom cycle and (2) if it’s potting mix stays wet for a long period of time (longer than a week).

If you notice the potting mix staying wet for a long time, note that this can also be an indicator that your plant may be in too big of a pot or may be planted in too dense of a potting medium. So be sure to consider these two factors as well.

Light is also a key component of how to get your holiday cactus to bloom, which will be covered thoroughly below.

How do you water a holiday cactus?

Holiday cacti are not used to staying wet in nature because they grow by climbing trees or rocks. The rain washes over their roots and stems and they absorb the water as it runs over them.

Keeping this in mind, it is very important that these cacti do not stay wet for long periods of time. They like to be watered often during the growing season (March to October) and dry out quickly, as this is what occurs in their natural environment.

As with all plants, they should still be watered thoroughly — meaning that water is allowed to saturate the pot and run out of the drainage holes to ensure even coverage.

Then the plant should be given time to utilize the water and watered again WHEN the potting mix is dry.

Outside of the growing season, watering can be lessened and the dry period can be lengthened to replicate the natural decline in rainfall during winter. The cactus should still be watered periodically, but instead of needing water immediately when dry, it can go a few extra days after becoming dry.

Decreasing their water at the end of the growing season will also encourage blooming, which we will cover more below!

What kind of soil should you use for a holiday cactus?

As mentioned above, these cacti grow on trees and rocks in the wild, which means that they are used to having a lot of airflow around their roots and have not adapted to survive in wet medium for long periods of time.

So we want to give them a fast-drying, well-aerated potting mix that keeps their roots healthy as they are very prone to root rot.

This potting mix can be made of a pre-made cactus mix or can be a hand-mixed potting medium with something like regular potting mix and a lot of perlite mixed in.

I personally use 1/3 organic potting mix, 1/3 perlite, and 1/3 orchid bark.

How often and what kind of fertilizer to use for a holiday cactus?

When to fertilize: Holiday cacti like to be fertilized during the growing season (when day length is longer and the weather is warmer). This does not include their bloom cycles, which is not part of their normal growing season.

How often to fertilize: Once a month during the growing season

What kind of fertilizer: A well-balanced organic fertilizer would work well. I recommend using an organic fertilizer to reduce the chance of salt buildup or accidental overfertilization.

If you want to read more about fertilizers, here is a link to my blog post on them!

How do you get a holiday cactus to bloom?

A holiday cactus knows that it is time to bloom because it can detect the natural shift in seasons when it is living outdoors.

To get our cacti to bloom indoors, we need to replicate (as much as we can) these seasonal changes so our cacti knows that it is time!

What are those changes?

Light:

Light is probably the most important shift the cactus uses to detect seasonal change.

To form buds, it needs at least 12 hours of darkness each day.

There are some people that recommend moving the cacti to a closet or dark room to achieve this. However, I do not recommend doing this because the cacti do not like their location to be moved and doing so can sometimes cause them to drop their buds.

Instead, you could take a brown paper bag or something similar and place it on top of your cactus to ensure that it maintains darkness from dinnertime until the next morning for at least 6 weeks prior to when you are hoping for blooms.

If your cacti’s location is naturally dark for many hours during the fall or winter, then you may not need to manually intervene.

Water:

A holiday cactus will also know it is time to prepare for blooming when the amount of water that it is receiving is decreased.

This makes sense as we think about the decreasing amount of rain in Fall or Winter.

We can also think about the relationship between the amount of light our plants receive and the amount of water our plants need. As the amount of light increases, the amount of water the plant needs increases. The same is true in the other direction. The less light the plant receives, the less water the plant needs.

Temperature:

Another way your cactus knows it is time to form buds is a drop in temperature. Just as the seasonal shift into Fall or Winter is marked by decreasing light and water, it is also marked by decreasing temperatures.

If you can drop the temperature down to around 60 degrees Fahrenheit or 15 degrees Celsius, that will help. This is a harder factor to control when we live indoors with our plants and do not want to cool our entire homes down to get our cacti to bloom.

People can and do get their cacti to bloom without dropping the temperatures in their homes.

Why do holiday cacti drop their buds?

Holiday cacti are sensitive to drastic changes, particularly during the time they are forming buds and blooming.

Drastic changes in temperature, hot or cold drafts, location changes, repotting them, drastic changes in watering habits, etcetera can all make the cacti drop their buds.

This is why it isn’t uncommon for people to purchase a cactus in the store that has lots of beautiful buds and then to bring it home and have it begin to drop those buds several days or a week or two later.

To help prevent bud drop, have the store wrap your cactus in a paper bag to protect it from the cold so you can get it home without experiencing temperature shock. Then try to place it in its final spot when you get home so you don’t have to move it again.

When trying to get your cactus to rebloom, rather than moving it to a dark closet and taking it out (which can potentially be too much change and cause bud drop for some cacti, but work okay for others), place a paper bag on top of your cactus to block out the light so it doesn’t have to move.

Sometimes you can do everything right and the cactus gets upset and drops its buds anyway. I’ve been there and I’m sorry if you have been too. 🙂

When should you repot your holiday cactus?

Holiday cacti do not need to be repotted very often because they do quite well when fit snugly in a pot. Some even say that the cacti will bloom better when a bit root-bound.

Here are some indicators it might be time to give your cactus a bigger pot!

Signs your cactus is ready to be repotted:

  1. It is drying out extremely quickly
  2. You haven’t repotted it in more than a couple years
  3. It isn’t drying out quickly enough, which is often caused by a few issues
    • 1st potential cause: the plant is too small for the pot it is in
      • Generally, holiday cacti only need a pot that is an inch or two larger than their root ball. If your cactus is planted in a much larger pot, decrease the size of the pot so the cactus is able to use the water efficiently.
    • 2nd potential cause: the plant needs more well-draining soil
    • 3rd potential cause: the plant is being watered too frequently (this doesn’t necessarily require repotting, but rather less watering!)

When during the year should you repot your cactus?

The recommendation is to repot after the cactus has finished blooming or before the next cycle of bud formation begins so you don’t interfere with the process.

Repotting at least a couple of months in advance of when your cactus typically blooms should be safe.

Note: Holiday cacti should only be repotted in an inch or two larger pot to prevent being overwatered since they are slow growers and do well for several years in small pots.

When and how do you prune a holiday cactus?

When: Holiday cacti can be pruned after they have bloomed or anytime up until the next season for bud formation.

How: You can prune this by deciding on a location you would like to prune between stem segments and simply twist gently to remove the stem above that segment.

If you prefer not to twist, you can also use a pair of sharp, clean scissors or a sharp, clean knife to remove a stem segment as well.

You can propagate the segments you prune off!

Allow the segments you prune to dry for a few hours, then place them in cacti soil about a half-inch deep. Be sure to choose a pot that is small enough to prevent overwatering once rooted.

Water very little over the next few weeks while the cuttings are rooting since the segments have no or very little roots. They are very prone to rot if in wet soil for long periods of time.

When the cuttings begin to produce new growth, you will know they have formed roots and can begin to be treated like a new plant with regular watering!

What are some common problems with holiday cacti?

  1. Overwatering
    • Overwatering is probably the most common problem with holiday cacti because people are worried about underwatering and accidentally overwater as result.

      These cacti will easily rot when sitting in wet soil for too long and often the first sign of this is wrinkly stems. This can be confusing for the person taking care of the cactus as wrinkly can be perceived as dehydrated and in need of more water, but in this case, it is just the opposite.

      Be sure to check the soil and make sure it has dried out completely before watering again. Cacti can often be saved, but they need time to dry out thoroughly to do so.
      .
  2. Mealybugs
    • Mealybugs are white cottony insects that suck the sap out of your plant. They like to hide in the nooks and crannies of plants, can hide in the soil, and have even been found hiding on the bottom of clay pots and saucers.

      For small infestations you can use a q-tip dipped in rubbing alcohol to dab the mealybugs. This will eliminate them on contact and you will see them go from the cottony white they were to a black/brown color.

      For larger infestations, it is still good practice to try the q-tip method where possible and then to spray the plant thoroughly using some type of insecticide. I personally use a combination spray of neem oil, mild dish soap, and water. ( .75 tsp of neem oil and .5 tsp of mild dish soap in 16 ounces of water ).

      It is good practice to check whether neem oil is safe for your specific plant before spraying. I’ve never had a bad reaction to neem with any of my plants so far though, for what that is worth. 🙂
  3. Scale
    • Scale insects also suck the sap from your plant. Unlike mealybugs who are slow, but mobile, scale insects hunker down in a location on your plant and live there long-term. They are protected by a shell that looks like a reptile scale, giving them their name.

      Due to this protective shell, it isn’t as easy to control them because spraying the plant will not necessarily penetrate this shell. I think scale and thrips are the pests I find hardest to eradicate in large numbers.

      To control them, pick or scrape off all of the scale insects you can see. Then spray the plant thoroughly with insecticidal soap or an organic spray like the one I mentioned above.

      Check the plant every few days for scale and scrape off any new insects. Spray every week or two until the infestation is gone.

      For a severe infestation, a systemic insecticide may be needed. Systemic insecticides are granules that you mix into the soil and water in. The plant absorbs the chemicals as it utilizes the water and these chemicals, as long as you use the proper dosage, will not harm the plant but will control the insects.

      Please be extremely cautious when using systemic pesticides. They are very harmful to humans and pets. Even if the plant you are treating is normally safe for pets and humans, it won’t be for at least a couple of months after being treated with a systemic pesticide.

      People generally recommend wearing gloves when handling your plant during this time and moving it to a safe location away from kids and pets.
  4. Fungus Gnats
    • Fungus gnats are those annoying, tiny black flies that you see buzzing in and around your plant when you disturb it. They live and breed in the moist, top inch of your plant’s potting mix.

      Because they need a wet, fungus-y place to live, it is often plants that are overwatered that attract them. You can also get them from the greenhouse that you purchased your plant as all of the wet soil at the greenhouse are great breeding grounds for fungus gnats.

      The easiest way to get rid of them, if it is just a small problem, is to let the soil dry out completely and stay dry for a day or two. This will control any larvae in the soil, preventing future adults.

      To control current adults, you could make some homemade vinegar traps: .5 cup warm water, 1 tablespoon apple cider vinegar, 1 tablespoon sugar, a few drops of dish soap.

      If you have a bigger infestation and are looking for ways to control and eradicate them, check out my blog post detailing many ways to do that by clicking here!

Where are holiday cacti found in the wild?

Holiday cacti (Schlumbergera sp.) are native to jungles in the mountains of Brazil. They are used to high elevations, which means they are accustomed to a larger range in temperatures (55 to 80 degrees Fahrenheit, 13 to 27 degrees Celsius).

These cacti like to grow and climb on trees (epiphyte) and rocks (lithophyte). Being jungle-dwellers in the tree canopy, they are used to indirect light, frequent rain, and high humidity. Their blooms are diurnal, meaning they close at night.

Resources used for this article:

Click to read last week’s post: 4 Reasons Cacti are Fascinating, Easy Houseplants

A Natural Curiosity
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