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Here's how to get your Christmas cactus to bloom in time for the holidays

Keep it looking lush

How to care for a Christmas cactus Credit: Getty Images / Nadezhda_Nesterova

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The Christmas cactus can brighten up the holiday season with long-lasting blooms in pink, yellow, white, purple, red, or orange—but it can be tricky to keep looking lush. (Especially if it’s competing against some truly evergreen artificial trees.)

Here’s how to care for your Christmas cactus, holiday cactus, or crab cactus all through the holiday season and beyond.

What is Christmas cactus?

To start, a Christmas cactus doesn’t act like a cactus—at least, not the kind of cactus you see in Phoenix. Instead of living in dry desert sands, these “cacti” all descend from plants botanists call Schlumbergera species, which live in shady, moist forests near the southeast coast of Brazil at elevations of 3,000 to 5,000 feet.

They live on tree branches in the wild, not in the ground. So, to take care of them, you need to think of making conditions more like a forest, less like the Sahara.

Don’t feel the need to repot

Watering a Christmas cactus
Credit: Getty Images / Olga_Anourina

Only water your Christmas cactus when it really needs it to avoid root rot.

If you just bought your Christmas cactus, you don’t have to worry about repotting it for a while. Unlike many other houseplants, a Christmas cactus doesn’t want a lot of elbow room. They thrive when they’re slightly “pot-bound,” meaning that their roots are bumping right up against the edge of the pot. You can keep your Christmas cactus in the pot it came in for up to three years without needing to repot it if it looks healthy.

If you do repot your Christmas cactus, try to find a potting mix that drains well, like potting soil for cactuses or succulents.

A Christmas cactus can’t survive in soils that retain a lot of moisture, because its roots begin to rot. Remember, in its natural habitat in Brazilian coastal forests, these plants get a little rain frequently—but it all runs down off the plant’s roots quickly. Make sure you use a plant pot with bottom drainage holes.

Keep it warm (but not too warm)

Despite its name, a Christmas cactus can’t survive in the snow! They thrive in a bright place where daytime temperatures are approximately 60°F to 70°F and nighttime temperatures are a little cooler, about 55°F to 65°F. They’ll typically bloom for two to three weeks at 60°F to 70°F daytime temperatures. Remember that it may be much cooler near a drafty window than next to your thermostat.

Allow for natural sunlight

Christmas cactus plants in a living room
Credit: Getty Images / Lana2011

Because it grows naturally in forests, the Christmas cactus plant thrives in indirect light.

The Christmas cactus grows in forests naturally, so they appreciate bright light that’s indirect, as though it was filtered through branches and leaves. If they’re inside, your Christmas cactus will thrive next to a sunny window. If you take your Christmas cactus outdoors, put it somewhere that gets partial or full shade to prevent leaf “burn” damage.

Provide enough water and humidity

Christmas cacti like it dry, but not too dry. Water your Christmas cactus when the soil becomes dry to the touch. If you stick your finger into the top inch of soil (up to your first knuckle), and it feels dry, it’s time to water. For next level care, invest in a 3-in-1 Soil Moisture Meter that will provide you with your plants moisture, pH, and light level.

Try to water promptly once the soil dries. Christmas cacti have been known to drop their flower buds (the whole reason you have a Christmas cactus!) if their soil dries out completely. Don’t let your Christmas cactus sit in a saucer of water, because standing water can make the roots rot.

Your Christmas cactus is native to areas with high humidity. To help give your Christmas cactus the moist air it craves, put your plant on top of a tray covered with pebbles. Excess water will drip down into the tray, away from your plants’ delicate roots, then evaporate, increasing the humidity to keep your Christmas cactus comfortable. If your home suffers from being ultra-dry and cold, a humidifier can provide some necessary humidity. A warm moisture humidifier can turn your space into a climate that will make the Christmas cactus feel right at home, plus it can help with that winter cough.

Give it a snack

In general, houseplants gradually use up the nutrients in their soil. Christmas cacti don’t live in soil in the wild, but they get nutrition from falling leaves. For winter bloom, give them a balanced fertilizer with equal parts nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium, like Schultz 20-20-20 or Plant Magic Organic Fertilizer.

Stop fertilizing your plant in September so that it will concentrate its energy on developing buds, not growing more leaves. You can start fertilizing again after flowering is finished.

Plan for revival

Christmas cactus in snow
Credit: Getty Images / NoDerog

Despite its name, your Christmas cactus won't be very happy in cold, snowy temperatures.

Christmas cacti are interesting-looking foliage plants at any time of year. If you want them to bloom again next winter, though, you need to change up their lives about six weeks before you want them to bloom. You have two choices:

  • Turn down the heat. Keeping temps at 50°F to 55°F overnight will trigger blooming. Use a maximum/minimum thermometer to see if your overnight temps get low enough to kickstart bud production.
  • Turn down the lights. If your house just doesn’t get below 60°F at night, you can convince your cactus it’s time to bloom by putting it in complete darkness for 14 hours a day. You can put your plant in a closet when you go to bed, or put a box on top of it. Just make sure you don’t put it in a room where someone may accidentally turn on the light in the middle of the night—they could undo all your hard work! Keep the Christmas cactus on this long night routine for four weeks, until you see buds start to form.

You can move your plant back to its typical location once buds appear. As long as it gets nine to 10 hours of light per day and temperatures around 60°F to 70°F, all should be well.

If you live in a northern area, you might find that your plant by the window naturally starts blooming in November, not December. That’s because your seasonal window light mimics the forcing conditions above. If you want a Christmas cactus, and not a Thanksgiving cactus, you’ll need to make sure it gets extra light and warmer conditions in October to delay the bloom.

Whatever budding method you choose, don’t change your plant’s conditions once you’ve put the budding plant to its permanent location. Sudden changes in temperature, humidity, or amount of light can shock the plant, making them drop all the buds they worked so hard to grow. Move it after it starts blooming to enjoy the biggest, brightest, show.

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