How to Care for your Holiday Cactus (Christmas, Thanksgiving, or Easter)
Hey plant friends! As I’m sure many of you have noticed, lately there have been many holiday cacti available at garden centers and stores. Most of them are Thanksgiving Cactus, but did you know that holiday cacti include the Christmas Cactus (Schlumbergera bridgesii or Schlumbergera x buckleyi), Thanksgiving Cactus (Schlumbergera truncata) and Easter Cactus (Schlumbergera gaertneri)? Each is different, having different leaves and blooming times. As you might guess, they all bloom around the holiday they’re named for!
Don’t worry! Despite being somewhat different in appearance, they all require the same basic care. You’ll be delighted to know that they are non-toxic for pets. It’s also important to note that they are indoor plants in most climates. Holiday cacti often have the unique privilege of being handed down in families. They are easy to care for, easy to propagate.
Thanksgiving, Christmas or Easter Cactus?
Not sure which you have? These common holiday cacti all look quite similar. Many people frequently mix them up, but it’s simple to identify once you know what to look for.
The main differences between the Christmas Cactus, Thanksgiving Cactus, and Easter Cactus are the time when they bloom, and the shape of their stem segments, or ‘leaves’. Bloom time is easy to guess, since they’re named for the time they bloom naturally. Often you’ll get one of these plants that has been coaxed to bloom at a different time, so you can also identify it by its leaves.
Thanksgiving cactus has leaves with spiky points around the edges. These are the most common, and most likely the one you have. Christmas cactus has more rounded scalloped edges. And Easter cactus has rounded leaves with small bristles on them.
Unlike most cacti, holiday cacti won’t love to be hot, bright, and dry. They originate from the rainforest in Brazil! They grow up in the tops of the trees, getting bright, indirect light, and humidity. They tend to do best when we mimic this as best we can. They like to hang, like from a plant stand or hanging planter, and will cascade downward. And, like their rainforest canopy origins, they prefer bright but indirect light. Near a window, but not directly in the sun is best.
Usually, when people struggle with a holiday cactus, it’s because of watering. Because it’s called a cactus, we assume it doesn’t need water, right? But they’re from the rainforest, so should I water a lot? Oh man. Don’t worry! These plants have a trick to know when to water them! If you watch their leaves, they start to wrinkle a little bit and get really soft or floppy when they need water. This is because they store the water in their leaves. After they’re watered, the leaves get fat, full of water. When they are thirsty, they look empty! Easier than you though, eh?
An important part of care is making sure that there is good soil that won’t keep the plant sitting in too much water. They don’t like soggy roots. So check the soil when you get your plant. Pour a little water on and see if the water goes through quickly, or if it sits there or doesn’t easily let water through.
For most of us, these plants cannot survive outside during the winter. They have very low cold tolerance! Most people keep them indoors year round, but I wanted to let you know that it’s perfectly fine to set them outside for the summer. Make sure you choose a spot that is not in direct sun at all during the day. Filtered and indirect light are best, otherwise your plant will get burned. Watering will be different when they’re outside, so for the first couple weeks keep a close eye and water when they’re thirsty. Then you’ll have a better idea of how often to water them outside.
There are a surprising number of colors of blooms for these lovelies. Pink, white, yellow, red, purple, even two-toned!
Generally, there are two ways to induce your holiday cactus to bloom. First, letting it do it naturally. In nature, the holiday cacti generally bloom when the days shorten and temperature drops. This happens during winter for most of us anyway. The drawback of this method is that your plant might not flower when you want it, or at all. There will also be fewer blooms.
The other method is by giving it a dark treatment. You’ll start dark treatment 6-8 weeks before you want it to bloom. Here’s the process:
Place the holiday cactus in the dark for 12-14 hours a day. This can be in a closet, under a box, or something else. Just be careful if you’re covering it so that you don’t break branches. Darkening it around 6 pm and putting it back into light around 8 am is a good schedule.
If you can, make the plant cooler during the dark period, in roughly a 50-65°F range. If you can’t cool the plant, increase the dark time.
Water less than normal
Doing these will stress the plant a bit, and it will start to get buds. Once buds show up, you can stop doing the dark treatment. Now you’ll want to leave it where it is, don’t move it around. This will cause the plant to drop those blooms and buds. We don’t want that! Keep the plant warm now (but not hot!), and water more frequently. You can also fertilize lightly throughout blooming, which can last up to 8 weeks. It takes extra energy to keep those blooms going!
Once the plant is done blooming, let it rest. Stop fertilizing, and let it dry out more between waterings.
First of all, don’t feel like you have to prune your plant. It’s not necessary at all! You can leave your plant just as it is, and it can be happy. But pruning your holiday cactus will encourage it to branch out and become fuller. Pruning doesn’t really hurt the plant, so don’t worry about that. The fun thing about pruning is that you can propagate the pieces you cut off. Propagate means turn them into new plants. Yay!
The best time to prune is after it is done flowering, or in the spring. Seriously, friends, this is the easiest plant to prune. The branches are conveniently separated into segments, the parts that we call the leaves. If you pinch or carefully cut in that space between segments, it comes off easily, and you’ve pruned! There’s no science to where you want to prune, just look and see where you think it needs it. There’s no right or wrong here! And remember, don’t throw away those pieces you removed!
You can propagate even one segment if you want. It works better to do bigger pieces, since the smaller ones take longer to fill out and grow. I’ve seen two ways to propagate these babies. One is to set all the pieces in water, cut end down, and most will grow roots in a few weeks. Then you can move them to soil. Water propagation works, but it’s harder to be successful. Some will turn to mush in the water, and the plants often struggle with the transition from water to soil. But it is really fun to watch the roots grow, and I’ve been able to grow healthy plants with this method.
The other way is to plant them directly into soil. It’s incredibly helpful to dip them in rooting hormone first, but not necessary. It just encourages them to root faster. Plant them in well-draining soil, about an inch deep. Keep the soil damp, but not soggy. And then wait a while. After a couple weeks you will probably start seeing new growth. This will usually show up on the end of a leaf, right in the middle, or in that space between segments. The new leaves are so cute!
Overall, I find that holiday cacti are some of the most popular houseplants, especially around Thanksgiving and Christmas. They’re easy to grow, mostly thriving on neglect, and they tell you when they’re thirsty. I hope you have fun with your holiday cactus, and thanks for gardening with the Gardening Moose!