Home Improvement Expert Danny Lipford

Caring for Holiday Cactus

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A popular gift to brighten the colder months, the group of plants known as “Holiday Cactus” get their names because of their ability (with a little help) to bloom during holiday seasons. Most popular are Thanksgiving Cactus (Schlumbergera truncata), Christmas Cactus (Schlumbergera bridgesii), and Easter Cactus (Hatiora gaertneri), with many hybrids and colors available.

These plants are easy to grow and are often passed down through the generations – my first one came from my mother, who got it from her mother. With holiday cactus, the million-dollar question isn’t how to grow it, but how to make it bloom. With a little extra attention during the fall months, you can have your plants blooming for the holidays.

About Holiday Cactus

The name “cactus” is a little misleading, as these plants are not related to the spiny, fleshy cacti we know and love. Instead, they are “epiphytes,” which means that they nestle in the high branches of rainforest trees, taking their nutrition from pockets of decaying plant matter and adapting to the water shortages as rain quickly drains away.

Many orchids and bromeliads are also epiphytes. This growth habit makes these plants more adapted to the somewhat drier conditions and filtered sunlight of the tropical tree canopy, which helps them live as houseplants in temperate climates.

The blooms of holiday cactus come in many colors, including white, pink, red, purple, and salmon-orange. Older plants will have long, arching stems that make them well-suited to hanging baskets or plant stands.

Holiday Cactus Grower’s Calendar

Don’t be intimidated by the word “calendar,” since these plants actually thrive on benign neglect. They need very little in the way of nutrients, occasional watering, and can even be stowed away in a cool spare room. Nevertheless, these monthly tips will help your plant thrive and bloom on demand.

  • January: If you received a holiday cactus as a gift, you get to start out easy. Let your plant rest for about a month after blooming. Keep it in a cool spot with indirect light, and water it sparingly until growth starts.
  • February: Starting now through April, you can repot your holiday cactus if needed. They like to be root-bound, so try to resist the urge unless you feel the plant is suffering due to poor soil.
  • March: When new growth begins, you can pinch or prune your plant. These cuttings can be rooted to make more plants!
  • April – September: This is the plant’s growing season. If you wish, you can feed it every few weeks with an all-purpose plant food with a 1-1-1 ratio. If you move it outdoors, keep it in a cool, shady spot. Water when the top inch of soil feels dry (no more than once a week), but only water enough to moisten the root ball – do not repeatedly soak the plant, and don’t leave water in the drainage tray.
  • September – October: This is the more critical time for ensuring your holiday cactus will bloom. Beginning in September, put your holiday cactus in a cool room (ideally around 50° F) with indirect bright light for 10-12 hours and total darkness for 12-14 hours. “Total darkness” means just that – no daylight, and no artificial light, either. You can easily achieve this by moving your plants in and out of a dark closet, or by covering them with a thick fabric cover – just take care that the cover doesn’t break the plant. They’ll need these conditions for 6-8 weeks to ensure flower bud formation. Stop fertilizing, and reduce watering to keep the soil just barely moist (once every couple of weeks).
  • November – December: When your plant is full of flower buds, you can stop the light-dark routine and bring your plant out to be enjoyed. Resume moderate watering. The cooler the location, the longer the blooms will last!

Holiday Cactus Tips

  • Don’t expose these plants to freezing temperatures! Despite their love of cooler temperatures, they are still tropical plants that won’t withstand freezing conditions.
  • They like about 50-60% humidity, which can be achieved using a pebble tray.
  • Never place your holiday cactus near a heat register, exterior door, or drafty window, and keep it out of burning sunlight.
  • Holiday cactus can easily be propagated by cuttings. Pinch off a section of stem that has 2-3 jointed segments. Let the cuttings dry for a few hours, then push them in a small pot with the same planting mix as the adult plant. Treat the cuttings just like an adult plant, and within a few weeks they’ll be rooted and growing.
  • Don’t fall into the trap of constantly repotting into a bigger pot. Holiday cactus likes to be root-bound, and repotting every 2-3 years (even back into the same pot) is plenty. If you repot, use a sterile, well-draining potting soil such as those packaged for African violets, orchids, or bromeliads.

Red flower on Holiday Cactus

Further Information



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8 Comments on “Caring for Holiday Cactus”

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  1. exterior doors Says:
    December 25th, 2008 at 4:41 am

    Nice flowers! My wife loves gardening very much and I bet she will like to see your pictures.

  2. Joan Says:
    December 31st, 2008 at 2:16 pm

    Hi ,This is my first Holiday Catus and the info I got was very helpful to my knowing how to grow this plant.
    Thank You

  3. Pamela Voyles Says:
    January 6th, 2009 at 4:22 pm

    Thank you so much for this information. I have always wondered about the flower. I have several and always get a new one each year. I give some plants to my friends and sister. My Mom has a beautiful plant that I gave her some yers ago, that is great and she really has great luck with it. It is better every year. Now I have some info that I needed mine this year did not bloom at all. The holidays were not the same without the flowers.Thanks again.

  4. Shirley Says:
    January 7th, 2009 at 6:35 am

    Thank you for the information about Holiday Cactus. I belong to a Garden Club locally and one person gave each of us a Christmas Cactus for Christmas present. I will pass this on at our next meeting. My daughter owns a Florist and she was not aware of the Thanksgiving and Easter Cactus. Thanks again.

  5. Rick Davis Says:
    January 7th, 2009 at 1:57 pm

    We have several varieties of the plants and have had super luck by ignoring the rules – no total darkness cycles etc. Have found that just “stressing” them will trip their trigger -setting them out for the summer and then bringing them in in fall will trigger blooming cycles. Have even had a “branch” flower in a rooting jar of water in a north window in January! Got one that had endured two hard freezes and it’s doing great. Doesn’t make sense according to the rules! Just ignore them and move them around!

  6. Official Comment:

    Julie Day Says:
    January 31st, 2009 at 12:20 pm

    Rick, you’re right – sometimes these plants do just fine without all the fussing over them. Thankfully, many garden plants are flexible and forgiving!

  7. Janet Daymude Says:
    November 20th, 2013 at 12:55 pm

    I bough one at the food lion store this November full of blooms beautiful.in a week or so I put it in a larger pot now the blooms keep falling off what can I do

  8. Evelyn Defendini Says:
    March 29th, 2014 at 10:57 am

    I have my Frist Holiday Cactus, and it has flowered now nearing Easter, but I notice that the leaves do not look healthy. The leaves are not shiny they seem wilted. I’m not over watering it. Maybe I am underwatering it. Could you please help.

    Thanks

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