How to Care for a Holiday Cactus

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Schlumbergera plants are epiphytes hailing from the rainforests of Brazil, where they grow wild in the branches of trees; however, most people opt to house their plants in pots rather than trees.
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Cultivated in England by William Buckley, the “true” Christmas cactus is a hybrid.
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The Thanksgiving cactus is native to Brazil, where it grows wild in Rio de Janeiro.
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After the first flowers open, expect your cactus to remain in bloom with a steady succession of new flowers over a period of several weeks.
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If in doubt about what species of Schlumbergera you’re looking at, check the stem segments. Thanksgiving cactuses have pointed edges, reminiscent of a crab’s claw.
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If in doubt about what species of Schlumbergera you’re looking at, check the stem segments. Christmas cactuses have smooth, round edges.

The local column in the December 23, 1915, edition of a rural New York newspaper noted a variety of newsworthy tidbits, including the fact that Miss Halwick was expected home for the holidays, that Mr. Green had back pain and was “confined to his home for several days,” and that Mrs. Van Etten had a Christmas cactus “in bloom for the holidays.”

The blooming of your cactus probably won’t make the society column in your local newspaper, but it is an exciting occasion, especially if the blooms coincide with the holiday season. Here’s how to put the odds of success in your favor.

Christmas Cactus Confusion

If there’s one thing that’s certain about plants in the Schlumbergera genus, it’s that the nomenclature is a little confusing. Common names tend to be used interchangeably within the genus, and plants are often mislabeled. Many of the plants sold as Christmas cactuses (Schlumbergera x buckleyi) are actually Thanksgiving cactuses (Schlumbergera truncata) timed to bloom at Christmas. (In subsequent years, people often wonder why their “Christmas” cactus plants bloom naturally at Thanksgiving.) The dividing line between these two cactus species gets a bit blurry at times, but here are the basics:

The Thanksgiving cactus (S. truncata) has been in cultivation for 200 years. The plants are recognizable by their pointy-edged “leaves” and habit of blooming in November. (Crab cactus is another popular name for S. truncata, so called because its pointed leaves are reminiscent of a crab’s claws.)

Christmas cactus (S. x buckleyi) is a hybrid — believed to be a cross between S. truncata and S. russelliana. Traditionally, S. x buckleyi have a more rounded edge to their leaf-like stem segments, and bloom in December. History credits a man named William Buckley with the original cultivation of the hybrid in England in the 1850s.

These species, along with the Easter cactus (Hatiora gaertneri), are often called “holiday” cactuses. Aside from slight differences in leaf type and natural bloom time, the fundamentals of Christmas cactuses and Thanksgiving cactuses are essentially the same, including the basics of plant care. So, whether you have a “true” Christmas cactus or a Thanksgiving cactus in disguise, you can get beautiful blooms in time for the holiday season by following some simple steps.

Exotic Epiphytes

For some people, the tradition of a Christmas or Thanksgiving cactus is as much a part of the holiday season as mistletoe and eggnog. The plants, if tended to properly, can last for years — long enough for family members to hand them down through the generations.

But what exactly are Christmas and Thanksgiving cactuses? Their names suggest a penchant for the dry, arid conditions we associate with cactus plants, but these plants aren’t cactuses in the traditional sense. Members of the Schlumbergera genus actually prefer humid conditions that mimic those of the rainforest. That’s because this genus of plants are epiphytes hailing from the rainforests of Brazil, where they grow wild in the branches of trees. Although today’s Schlumbergera enthusiasts opt to house their plants in pots rather than trees, these gorgeous plants will thrive if you provide conditions that suit them.

Schlumbergera plants feature tubular flowers in a variety of colors, including red, white, pink, purple, and orange. The red and pink variations are particularly well-suited to a holiday color scheme, especially when contrasted with the green stem segments. An added bonus: While poinsettia plants may be more widely associated with the holiday season, Christmas and Thanksgiving cactuses have an advantage over the poinsettia in that they’re nontoxic. If you’ve ever hesitated over choosing a poinsettia because of pets or small children in your home, you can opt for a nontoxic cactus instead. 

Cactus Care

OK, so maybe you can’t precisely mimic the conditions of a Brazilian rainforest in your home, but you can set your cactus up for success regardless.

Let’s start with soil. The key is to focus on achieving moist, well-drained soil. Regular watering is vital to the health of your cactus; but at the same time, you’ll want to ensure that you provide well-drained soil in a pot with drainage holes.

Light and temperature requirements depend on the season. The requirements for winter blooming appear on Page 91, but most plants will happily live outdoors during warmer months if they have plenty of filtered, indirect sunlight and sufficient water to keep the soil moist.

When it comes to pruning, there’s a specific time that you shouldn’t prune your cactus, and that’s when it’s blooming. After it has completely finished blooming for the season, you can prune a bit as needed. Generally speaking, the plant only requires pruning if it has grown unwieldy — usually about every three years or so.

Christmas and Thanksgiving cactuses are easy to propagate from cuttings, so you can spread the joy of an established plant by sharing starter plants with family and friends. When the time comes to prune your plant, simply use the pruned stems to propagate new plants. They make great holiday gifts!

These cactuses are generally easy to maintain and aren’t particularly finicky; however, like any plant, they can suffer from an array of issues, including mealybugs and root rot. Bud drop is a common problem that occurs for a variety of reasons, including rapid temperature changes, general plant stress, and soil that’s too dry or too wet. A happy medium is the ideal when it comes to moisture for your plant.

Your plant will occasionally need to be repotted, but usually not more than every three years. If it’s showing signs of becoming root-bound, you might want to repot. Be sure to wait until your plant’s blooming period is complete to do so.

Timing the Bloom

You’d probably like to convince your plant to burst into bloom right at the peak of the holiday season. Don’t worry — you can make it happen, but it’ll require a little bit of effort.

A combination of light, darkness, and temperature affect the blooming time of these cactuses. The good news is that when you know the formula, you can use it to time their blooming for when you desire.

Six to eight weeks before you’d like your cactus to bloom, begin providing the ideal conditions. Bring your plant indoors if it’s been outside for the summer, and provide it with an artificial “short day,” with up to 10 hours of light and at least 14 hours of complete darkness. Don’t underestimate the importance of complete darkness — even small amounts of light can interfere with the blooming process, so you may need to cover the plant.

When preparing the plant to bloom, provide nighttime temperatures between 50 and 55 degrees Fahrenheit. If nighttime temperatures are warmer than that, you’ll want to compensate by increasing the number of hours the plant spends in complete darkness. When the plant begins to set buds, you can remove it from the darkness and enjoy the blooming season.

After the first flowers open, expect your cactus to remain in bloom with a steady succession of new flowers over a period of several weeks.

Why not brighten your holidays with the joy of a Christmas or Thanksgiving cactus? Who knows, it might still be delighting your family for decades to come!

Samantha Johnson has authored several books, including The Beginner’s Guide to Vegetable Gardening. She lives on a former dairy farm in northern Wisconsin with her Pembroke Welsh Corgi, Peaches. She writes frequently about pets, gardening, and farm life.

Mother Earth Gardener
Mother Earth Gardener
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