Caring for Holiday Cactus

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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25 Comments on “Caring for Holiday Cactus”

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  • Cubs4life Says:
    March 4th, 2019 at 8:55 am

    I was given a Thanksgiving Cactus last May, Kept it outside all summer and brought it in the 3rd week of October and it bloomed beautifully with out me putting it in a dark room..

  • Official Comment:

    Thomas Boni Says:
    November 26th, 2018 at 9:11 am

    Hi, Debby,
    We would suggest contacting your local Master Gardeners association.
    Master gardeners train on a range of topics so they can provide advice, at no charge, for people in their area.
    They often provide in-person consultations.
    Here’s more information:
    Thanks for your question, and good luck!

  • Debby pitts Says:
    November 25th, 2018 at 8:10 pm

    I have thanksgiving cactus I received last year for gift. It had blooms. It has grown and doubled in size on my back covered porch. I brought it in a couple of weeks ago when temps dropped. I put it in dark room with little light. It has small round buds but they don’t seemed to be getting any bigger. How long does bud to flower take? This is in South Carolina.

  • Madeline Says:
    November 11th, 2018 at 3:22 pm

    I just never bother doing anything to mine other than occasionally watering it.Its in the same spot year around and blooms at least. three times a year. Try ignoring it and you’ll be surprised. Good luck!!!!

  • Official Comment:

    Thomas Boni Says:
    November 5th, 2018 at 9:34 am

    Glad to hear it, Amy. Let us know how it goes! 🙂

  • Amy Says:
    November 5th, 2018 at 5:15 am

    I’ve had my thanksgiving cactus for several years now and wasn’t aware it even bloomed until my Mom asked about it…I’m going to try and get it to bloom with the use of these tips…I’ll let you know how it goes, thanks for the help!I can’t wait to see blooms!

  • Official Comment:

    Thomas Boni Says:
    October 1st, 2018 at 4:36 pm

    Hi, Mao,
    The Christmas Cactus relies on a certain amount of light and cool temperatures to bloom, so, unfortunately, we can’t recommend an alternative.
    It’s one of those things that makes this flower unique!
    Thanks for your question.

  • Mao Willis Says:
    October 1st, 2018 at 1:33 pm

    I could not find any closet or room that have temperature between 50- 60 degrees in my house for my Christmas cactus.. Is there any other way to make Christmas cactus bloom ? Please help. Thankyou for any advises

  • Official Comment:

    Thomas Boni Says:
    June 30th, 2018 at 12:57 am

    Glad to hear it’s working out for you, Wendy. That’s awesome!

  • Wendy Says:
    June 28th, 2018 at 3:23 pm

    My holiday cactus blooms year round and I do nothing special to it. It sits above an air vent beside glass doors that face the south side of my house. I throw some water on it whenever I remember and never put it in darkness. It blooms continually. I write this in June and it’s full of blooms. It’s a plant that seems easy to grow and I’ve never given it the care that this article suggests.

  • Shirley Travers Says:
    November 16th, 2017 at 1:56 pm

    My Easter Cactus has real long cylindrical leaves in addition to regular. Should the real long ones be cut off?

  • Janice Says:
    October 25th, 2017 at 5:47 pm

    How can I tell if I have Thanksgiving or Christmas cactus?

  • Dixie Douthitt Says:
    April 22nd, 2016 at 7:42 pm

    My Mother gave me a leaf off her Christmas Cactus and I put it in dirt . It grew a little but seems to just sit there. My mama passed and I so want to keep it. Please help.

  • Jen Says:
    February 6th, 2016 at 11:32 am

    My plant has what looks like white dust on the leaves . I clean the leaves with water and paper towel and three or four days later it is back

  • Brenda Sullivan Says:
    September 11th, 2015 at 7:37 pm

    I have three Thanksgiving cacti. I do the closet thing about 6 weeks before Thanksgiving and take it out when it has buds on them. It works every time. I have had them for about 5 years. Last year I had to repot two and that’s how I wound up with three.

  • Laurie Says:
    June 18th, 2015 at 8:49 pm

    Do not put the plant near a constant light as these plants flower due to the days getting shorter. Keep only moist as they rot very easy if too wet, and watch out for mealy bugs that get in the root system. By the time they wilt, the roots have all gone.

  • Noire Says:
    February 13th, 2015 at 1:34 pm

    If there are fruit flies that swarm around or hover it at night, the ideal is to cover or seal the plant(s) with a box and cover (in the evening or at night). If there are bugs in the soil (which is common), thoroughly water the plant weekly and make sure it drains well. Then again, of course check on the soil before doing so. Just don’t forget the dark treatment for the plant(s) at night.

  • 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.


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

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

  • 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!

  • 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!

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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

  • 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.

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Caring for Holiday Cactus