Yes, the Christmas cactus is succulent. Despite the plant’s name, however, it is not a desert plant and is not as drought-tolerant as other cacti.
Like most succulents, this plant’s leaves are thick and fleshy and can store water for use in the event of a drought. It is also a low-maintenance plant that does not need very much care and attention to thrive.
The most defining characteristic of this plant is its blooming time, which coincides with the holidays. This makes it a popular gift for that time of year.
In this article, we will discuss more about the Christmas cactus and its proper cultural care. So, if you are planning on adding this succulent to your collection and want to learn more about it, just keep reading.
What is a Christmas cactus?
The Christmas cactus, or Schlumbergera x buckleyi, is a festive plant that blooms from late November to early December.
It is native to the coastal mountains of Brazil, as well as Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro.
Because it is not a desert plant like most cacti, the Christmas cactus actually prefers more humid and moist conditions. This is because the weather in its natural habitat includes plenty of rain for many months of the year.
The Christmas cactus can even grow on mossy trees and rocks.
Is a Christmas cactus a succulent?
Yes, the Christmas cactus is succulent. It belongs to the Schlumbergera genus, which falls under the Cactaceae family.
It is native to Brazil and has thick, fleshy leaves that are able to store water for the plant to use when the soil it is planted in has lost all moisture. This means that the plant is capable of tolerating drought better than most plants.
Christmas cactus care
Even though this plant is called a cactus, when it comes to its light requirements, it actually does not like too much bright, direct sunlight.
It can be very sensitive to too much light and you may see symptoms of sun damage like the browning of its leaf tips or the stems turning red.
If the plant is not getting enough light, on the other hand, it will affect its ability to flower.
You need to give your Christmas cactus just the right amount of bright, indirect light.
If you are keeping the plant indoors, it is best to keep it next to north- or east-facing window, because these are the windows that let in a gentler light.
If the only windows available in your house are letting in too much harsh light, you can still place your plant next to them but you may need to place a sheer curtain over the window to diffuse the light.
If you do not get enough natural light where you live, you can also support the plant with a grow light.
The Christmas cactus also has some very specific light requirements for when you want to increase its likelihood of blooming.
For this plant to start producing buds, it needs to get at least 12 hours of darkness every day, with a temperature between 55 and 70 degrees Fahrenheit.
If the temperature goes over 70 degrees, the plant should get 16 hours of darkness a day.
When we say darkness, we mean absolute darkness; even the light from a lamp or a streetlight across the street can ruin this cycle.
If it is impossible to find a spot that is 100% dark, you can simply cover the plant up to keep it in the dark.
Compared with desert cacti, the Christmas cactus needs more hydration, more often.
It also needs water more often during the warmer months of spring and summer, because this is the plant’s growing season. In these seasons, you will need to water it every two or three days on average.
The best way to water your cactus is to wait until the soil in the pot has almost completely dried out. Do not be too enthusiastic about your watering, because you do not want to overwater it.
In order to check the moisture levels, stick your finger into the top two inches of soil. If the soil is dry to the touch, you can water the plant, but if the soil is still damp, wait one or two days before checking it again.
Unlike other succulents that do not like getting their leaves wet, the Christmas cactus likes the occasional misting. This will also help with its ability to flower.
During the colder seasons, you will need to water the plant lease often and with less water each time, because it is not growing actively and the soil will dry out more slowly in the cooler weather.
When the flowers are starting to open, it is best to start increasing the volume of water again.
Underwatering is a common mistake with Christmas cacti. An underwatered Christmas cactus will have browning, wilted leaves because of the loss of moisture. Plants use water as a vessel to transport nutrients and minerals from the soil into the roots, so if there is no water in the soil, the plant will suffer from nutrient deficiency as well as dehydration.
If you think your Christmas cactus is underwatered, all you need to do is to water it thoroughly. Make sure that all of the soil in the pot is soaked and that you can see excess water flowing out of the drainage holes at the bottom of the pot.
Another mistake is overwatering, and this is more serious than underwatering because it can kill the plant faster.
When the plant is overwatered, the leaves will turn yellow and start to droop. They will also feel soft and mushy to the touch because the excess water absorbed by the plant is essentially overloading its cells.
If the overwatering problem is not addressed immediately, it can lead to root rot. This is a condition caused by prolonged exposure of the roots to waterlogged soil so that they can never dry out between waterings.
Plants need their roots to dry out so that they can absorb oxygen. If they cannot absorb oxygen due to perpetually soggy soil, the roots will drown and start to rot. The rotting roots are then susceptible to opportunistic pathogens like fungi and bacteria, which will make the rot spread more aggressively from the roots to the rest of the plant. Once the rot has reached the stems and leaves, it might be too late to save the plant and you will be better off saving the few remaining healthy stems and leaves for propagation.
If you think your Christmas cactus is overwatered, you need to stop watering it immediately and move it to a spot where it can get lots of light so that the soil dries out faster.
If you suspect root rot, you will need to remove the plant from its pot and wash off as much soil as you can from the roots. Be gentle doing this because the roots are quite fragile in this state. Inspect the roots thoroughly for sections that have turned brown or black; these are rotten and will need to be removed. Use a sterile knife or scissors to cut off the rotten roots until only healthy, white roots remain.
Lay the plant on a dry surface to let the roots air-dry for several hours.
Prepare a new pot, ensuring that it has drainage holes, and fill it with succulent potting mix. Place the plant in the middle of the pot and cover the roots well with more soil.
Then, return the plant back to a spot where it can get bright, indirect light.
The Christmas cactus is able to grow on mossy tree trunks and rocks just as well as it can in potting mix. This is because the plant is epiphytic, meaning its roots can also live in the open air and can absorb moisture directly from the atmosphere.
This is also why the plant prefers high humidity, which helps it effectively absorb moisture from its surroundings. If you live in a place that is not that humid, you may need to compensate by watering the soil a bit more often.
However, although the plant likes moist soil, it should never be waterlogged because of the many negative effects of overwatering.
There are commercially available succulent soil mixes and you can make this even more well-draining by adding perlite or coarse sand to them. You can also make your own potting mix at home by combining regular potting soil, perlite, compost, and milled peat.
The pot that you use is also important in keeping the plant happy and healthy. Make sure it has drainage holes at the bottom to reduce the chances of overwatering and root rot.
The Christmas cactus is not as finicky about temperature as it is about humidity.
Although it is called a cactus, it does not really need hot temperatures to flourish.
Try to keep the plant between 60 and 70 degrees Fahrenheit during the day, and between 50 and 55 degrees Fahrenheit at night.
The Christmas cactus is native to very humid regions, so it should come as no surprise that it appreciates humid conditions.
The best way to keep the plant happy is to replicate its native humidity in the room where it is kept. It is important because, as we mentioned, the plant is epiphytic and can absorb moisture from the air around it.
Try to keep the humidity around the plant at around 50 to 60 percent. If the air is quite dry, you can also mist the plant every once in a while.
Another option is to use a water pebble tray. Place this below the plant’s pot and as the water evaporates, it will moisten the soil in the pot and the plant’s leaves. Just do not forget to refill the water in the pebble tray when it becomes empty.
You can also place the plant near other humidity-loving plants so that they can create a microclimate around each other, or keep it in one of the more humid rooms of your house, such as the bathroom or kitchen.
If you have the means, you can also buy a humidifier to automatically regulate the humidity levels in the room.
Like most houseplants, the Christmas cactus needs to be fertilized because it cannot survive on the nutrients and minerals in the soil alone.
The plant will become weak and can literally break apart if it does not get the elements it needs to survive and thrive.
Use a water-soluble fertilizer at half-strength to help the plant bloom. Fertilizers that contain equal amounts of potassium, phosphorus, and nitrogen are best.
Fertilize the plant every three weeks from April to September. April is when the plant’s leaf growth starts.
Stop fertilizing at the end of September, because fertilizer can affect the growth of the flower buds. The buds will fall off and the plant might not have any flowers come Christmas time.
This is caused by a buildup of salts in the soil from fertilization after the plant has stopped actively growing for the year.
Christmas cactus growth
There are many factors that can affect the size that your mature Christmas cactus will reach. Typically, the plant will not grow really tall, but it does tend to spread horizontally.
It grows hanging branches from its sides that can reach over three feet long.
A lack of size is not indicative of poor health, provided you are caring for the plant properly.
Propagating the Christmas cactus
The easiest and most successful way to propagate the Christmas cactus is using cuttings.
First, you need to take some cuttings from the parent plant. Choose some y-shaped branch tips and cut below them using sterile scissors or pruning shears.
Lay the cuttings on a dry surface and allow them to dry out for three days in a cool room. This stage is important so that a callus can form on the cut end of the cutting.
Prepare new pots with succulent potting mix. Make sure they have drainage holes at the bottom so that the soil can drain properly.
When the cuttings have been callused over, place each one in the soil with a quarter-inch of the cutting buried.
Place the pots where the cuttings can get lots of bright, indirect light, and water the cuttings only enough to keep the soil moist but not soggy.
After two weeks, the tips of the leaves will start growing and will turn red, indicating that roots have begun to grow.
You can check the root growth by gently tugging on the cutting; if you can feel resistance, it means that the roots have anchored nicely into the soil.
You can then care for the new plants as you would a regular Christmas cactus.
Yes, the Christmas cactus is succulent. It is native to Brazil and is one of the most festive houseplants you could own. Its fleshy leaves can absorb and store water, which the plant can use in the event of a drought.
Even though this plant is called a cactus, it does not actually do well in hot or dry conditions. It likes bright, indirect light; moist, well-draining soil; fertilizer from April to September; humid conditions and regular room temperature.
You can propagate your Christmas cactus using stem cuttings.
Image: istockphoto.com / Ulianna