Caring for Christmas Cactus

Jeanne Grunert
by Jeanne Grunert
Starting in the late fall, the stores begin to blossom with colorful holiday cacti. Although not truly cacti like the plants you'll find growing in the desert, both Thanksgiving cactus (Schlumbergera truncata) and the true Christmas cactus (Schlumbergera bridgesii) are popular house plants that begin blooming in November. With the right care, they can live for decades. It's not uncommon to find someone with "grandma's Christmas cactus", a venerable plant passed down through the generations and cherished! Caring for Christmas cactus ensures your plants will have a long, happy life.
Both Thanksgiving and Christmas cacti aren't really cacti at all. They originate in the tropical rain forest of Brazil. This gives you an idea of the type of light, humidity and moisture they love.
All types of holiday cacti comes in many colors. You can find them in white, pink, peach, red, lavender and other colors. The leaves should be a bright, even green with perhaps some burgundy shading. If the leaves on your plant are white, the plant is receiving too much light.
Leaves burned by too much sun.
Same plant 1 year later with healthy leaves.
During spring and summer, keep your holiday cactus in bright but indirect light. A West or East-facing window is fine, or place it outside under a tree so that the shade can keep it from getting scorched.
To encourage your plant to produce buds and flowers, it needs long nights of 14 hours or more of uninterrupted darkness starting around September. This encourages is to bloom anywhere from Thanksgiving to Christmas. You can move the plant into a dark closet for 14 hours, then move it back to its window during the day. Keep doing this until the plant develops buds.
During spring and summer, you can let the soil dry out between watering. However, once the buds are set, you have to keep the soil evenly moist. If the plant dries out, it will drop its buds.

To fertilize your Christmas and Thanksgiving cacti, mix 20-20-20 water soluble fertilizer into water and feed your plant every two weeks from spring through late summer. On the alternate weeks, mix 1 teaspoon of Epsom salts with 1 gallon of water and water your plant with just this mixture. Do not fertilize with Epsom salts and commercial fertilizer on the same week. Use the Epsom salt and water mixture just once per month. Holiday cacti need more magnesium than other plants, and Epsom salts -- magnesium sulfate -- is perfect for the job. Stop fertilizing your cacti in late summer to encourage bud set. (Fertilizing information from Clemson University Cooperative Extension)
Most holiday cactus experience few problems. Bud drop, where the plant sets buds but they fall off before it blooms, is usually caused by drafts, extreme temperature fluctuations (such as a plant too near a heat vent), or plants left to dry out between watering. If plants don't set buds, it's just not getting enough darkness. Even something as simple as a street light reflecting into the window where your plant lives can give it enough light to prevent it from setting bud.

With their amazing flower show each year and longevity, holiday cactus are a favorite house plant. Whether you own a Thanksgiving cactus, Christmas cactus or an Easter cactus, you own a beautiful house plant that will flourish with the right care.
Jeanne Grunert
Want more details about this and other DIY projects? Check out my blog post!
Frequently asked questions
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3 of 12 questions
  • Marc Erick Marc Erick on Nov 08, 2018

    Hi. Thanks for the tutorial! My question is... is it normal for the tiny new leaves that form to be very light in color? They're not white as you mentioned, just very light yellow. I have mine inside with grow light... which I have done for many years now in the fall and winter months. I have 12 starters in separate pots, from the parent plant. And they are all starting to produce this new growth. Thanks!

  • Christine White Christine White on Mar 31, 2019

    When is the best time to do the 14 hour darkness

  • Tammy Tammy on May 19, 2019

    Can you root a Christmas Catus

Join the conversation
3 of 39 comments
  • Colleen E Schiehl Colleen E Schiehl on Oct 14, 2017
    Mine is by patio window it is too heavy to move
    I guess I am going have keep the blinds down and lights off for 14 hours.

    • Kelli Murphy Kelli Murphy on Apr 10, 2019

      Maybe put a big black garbage bad over it? Only 14 hours a day, so after dinner until the morning?

  • B9m33953285 B9m33953285 on Aug 17, 2018

    Thanks for the information. Very useful