HomeUltimate Guide to Christmas Cactus
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Ultimate Guide to Christmas Cactus

Find out what the Christmas cactus is and learn how to care for the festive cacti in this guide...

The cactus plant, native to North and South America, is often known for its spiky appearance. However, there are over two thousand known different species of cactus, each differing and size, as well as displaying various features including different spines or flowers.

The symbolisation of a cactus plant can vary depending on the location or culture, as well as the specific type of cactus. For example, in Eastern cultures, the cactus symbolises strength, whereas within Native American cultures, a cactus represents warmth and endless love.

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What is a Christmas cactus?

A Christmas Cactus is a flowering plant that is part of the Schlumbergera family of cacti.

Originating in Brazil, this succulent would naturally be found growing on shaded rocks or within woodlands.

This plant is commonly seen as a house plant, recognisable by its hanging, flattened stems and bright flowers. The house plant flowers over the Christmas period when located in the Northern Hemisphere, and therefore has taken on the name of the Christmas cactus.

How many varieties of Christmas cactus plants are there?

There are three common varieties of Schlumbergera plants that fall under the umbrella of the holiday cactus.

The main method of identifying between the varieties is to observe the shape of the leaves, however, there are also some minor differences in the flowers as well.

The identifying features of each of the plants are:

Schlumbergera truncata

This cactus plant sometimes has the nickname of claw or crab cactus as the leaves (or clades) have a slight point to the tip, as well as points near the top of the leaves. This variety often has slightly wider leaves than other Schlumbergera plants, with the overall effect representing a blade or teeth. Another defining feature is that the flowers often grow horizontally, and the pollen is often yellow. The Schlumbergera truncata is the most common type of holiday cactus and therefore it’s likely that your potted cactus plant is of this variety. This plant is sometimes known as the Thanksgiving cactus in the United States, as it often blooms around November.

Schlumbergera x buckleyi

This is a hybrid plant, combing a Schlumbergera russelliana and Schlumbergera truncate. This variety of holiday cactus features a more sculpted leaf (or clade) with less of a point. The flowers often grow symmetrically and grow in a downward direction. The flowers also feature pink pollen. · Schlumbergera brigesii – This variety of cactus features a scalloped-edge clade of leaf, and is often available in a range of flowering colours such as white, pink, orange or red. In addition to the Schlumbergera varieties, a further type of cactus is often included when discussing holiday cacti, as follows:

Rhipsalidopsis

Also known as the Easter cactus features flat, oval-shaped leaves (or clades) with very subtle scalloped edging. The flowers represent a funnel shape and come in many shades, including red, white, orange, pink, peach and lavender. This plant generally flowers later than the Schlumbergera varieties’, hence the Easter nickname, however, the exact timing of flowering will vary depending on where the plant is situated.

There are similarities between the differing holiday cacti, including that Schlumbergera cacti often bloom twice a year, and all holiday cacti have similar methods of taking care of the plants.

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What is the symbolisation of a Christmas cactus?

Legends state that a young boy prayed to God for signs of Christmas within his hot and humid climate and, finally, on Christmas day, the Schlumbergera plants bloomed throughout the jungle woodland. However, within its native country of Brazil, situated within the southern hemisphere, the flowering of the cacti would not be until May time, therefore contradicting the story behind the plant.

Gifting a cactus plant symbolises that the recipient is thought of as resilient, and the sharing of the plant is a symbol of strength and love.

How to care for a Christmas cactus

Holiday cacti originate from hot, humid climates, and prefer the shade, away from direct sunlight. Therefore, due to these favourable conditions found in the cacti’s native home, the family of cacti have differing care requirements from those of their desert cacti relatives.

The weather within the northern hemisphere is seasonable and therefore conditions vary. As such, most Christmas cacti are kept as indoor plants to protect them from the elements.

As briefly mentioned, all varieties of holiday cacti will have the same care needs as follows:

Water

  • As part of the cacti family, a Christmas cactus does not need to be watered frequently. Often, indoor cacti would only require water every 1-3 weeks, depending on the conditions.

This family of cacti would grow onto trees and rocks within their native home, with their roots exposed. Therefore, Christmas cacti will not thrive if their roots become too wet or sit in water. Over-watering can cause stress to these plants, resulting in the flowers to fall off.

Light

  • Christmas cacti prefer bright conditions. However, they must be kept away from direct sunlight. Too much light can cause stress to the Christmas cactus.

Temperature and Humidity

  • This plant would prefer temperatures between 18-23 °C and high humidity. However, if the plant is kept indoors, other factors must be considered, such as mould or the attraction of bugs, if the room is too humid, therefore 50-60% humidity is a good compromise.

Soil conditions

  • For best results, ensure to use a suitable potting soil mix specifically for cacti. In addition, fertilise the Christmas cacti following flowering.

Pruning

  • In order to encourage a bushier plant, branches of clades can be removed.

Pruning should take place following the flowering season for the cactus.

Deadheading the old flowers can be undertaken also encourages more blooming as well as keeping the cacti looking tidy.

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How to take a cutting from your cactus for a gift

To take a cutting from a Christmas Cactus to create a new plant, cut back a shoot from the tip, cutting at the second joint. Once cut, leave the cutting to callous for a few days, during which it should show signs of life. At this point, the new plant cutting can be planted in a new container.
Frequently Asked Questions

Wilting leaves are a sign that a Christmas cactus is not happy. This can be for several reasons as follows:

  • Over watering – As mentioned, this cactus does not enjoy excess water, therefore check that the soil is not too wet. Try letting the soil mix dry out between each water.
  • Dry soil – Check if the soil is too dry beneath the surface. If so, lightly water the plant and review if the plant is located within too much sunshine.
  • Review the light conditions – Is the Christmas cactus receiving adequate daylight?
  • Check the plants roots – If the pot is too small, the roots may not have sufficient space for the plant to thrive, therefore check if re-planting to a bigger container is required.

The common cause of blackened leaves is too much watering.

Christmas Cactus can suffer with mealybugs that can appear like white goo growing from the plant, however, these are wingless insects. The bugs suck the sap from the cacti, which can kill the plant if left untreated.

If white goo is spotted, clean the bugs off the plant with rubbing alcohol, wash the plant with water and re-pot.

Another bug that can impact the Christmas cactus is the fungus gnat. These mosquito-like bugs lay eggs within the potting soil and can cause root damage to the plant.

One of the most effective ways to get rid of the insects is to firstly quarantine the infested plant, and use yellow sticky traps which are widely available to attract the adult insects, breaking the life cycle of the insects.

To prevent the fungus gnat from re-appearing, provide good air conditioning to the plants and avoid over-watering. Also, check for any signs of gnats on any plants entering the home that could cause a re-infestation. Another prevention method is to lay sand on top of the potting soil to deter the female fungus gnats from laying eggs.

The Schlumbergera cacti often flower twice a year, however, sometimes the plants may need some encouragement to bloom, especially for the second flowering.

Flowering is triggered by the correct light and temperature conditions for the plant. Two months before the desired blooming, create the following conditions to encourage the flowering:

  • Ensure that the plant has 12-14 hours of darkness every 24-hour period
  • Drop the temperature of the room the plant is kept to between 10-15 °C
  • Reduce the watering

Once the buds start to form, gradually increase the light, temperature and watering routine to the normal levels, in order not to stress the plant.

Christmas plants

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