The Christmas cactus, or Schlumbergera truncata, is a popular succulent houseplant, particularly around the holiday season because this is the time of year that it blooms.
Despite being known as a holiday plant, the Christmas cactus is actually native to tropical climates, meaning it is not the most cold-hardy plant and needs to be taken indoors when the weather gets too cold.
One of the common complaints of Christmas cactus owners is that their plants’ leaves have become limp. The most probable reasons for this are overwatering and root rot.
In this article, we will talk about both of these causes and how you can fix the problem and save your Christmas cactus.
So, if you are having a similar problem and you wish to learn more, just keep reading.
Why are the leaves on my Christmas cactus limp?
The most probable reason your Christmas cactus’ leaves are limp is that you are overwatering it.
This can happen in a number of ways: you may be giving the plant too much water each time you water it, watering it more often than you need to, using poorly-draining soil or a pot without drainage holes, or forgetting to adjust your watering habits to changes in the weather, season or climate.
Remember that the Christmas cactus is still a succulent, even though it is native to tropical Brazil. That means it is able to store water in its leaves and body and can endure prolonged periods without rain.
When you water your plant, you need to get all of the soil wet but any excess water should be able to escape freely through drainage holes at the bottom of the pot. Poor drainage leads to soggy soil, and if the roots are exposed to this for long periods, one of the effects will be limp leaves on the plant.
Plant roots are compromised by soggy soil because it impairs their ability to absorb nutrients. They also absorb more water than they should because there is so much excess in the soil, and this weakens the plant, causing its leaves to become limp.
If you think your plant is overwatered, stop watering it immediately and allow the soil to dry out completely before watering it again. Place it in a spot where it can get lots of bright, indirect light and good air circulation, which will help dry the soil out faster.
The easiest way to determine whether your plant needs to be watered is by touching the soil in the pot. If the top two inches of soil are dry, water the plant, but if the soil is still a bit damp, wait one or two days before checking it again.
To help prevent overwatering, make sure that you plant your Christmas cactus in a succulent potting mix that is light and airy, in a pot that is neither too small nor too big for the plant.
If you cannot find commercially-available succulent soil mix, you can make your own by mixing one part regular potting soil, two parts peat moss and one part coarse sand. This mix will be well-draining while providing the plant with all the nutrients it needs to thrive.
The pot must have drainage holes at the bottom; if you think there are not enough holes, you can always use a drill to add more, or to enlarge the existing holes.
Overwatering and root rot usually go hand in hand, because root rot is caused by prolonged overwatering.
Root rot is a condition caused by prolonged exposure of the roots to waterlogged soil. The roots drown and die because they are unable to dry out and absorb oxygen between waterings. The dead roots become susceptible to opportunistic pathogens such as fungi and bacteria in the soil, and these make the rot more aggressive, causing it to spread even faster to the rest of the plant.
When the rot reaches the stems and leaves, one of the signs will be limp leaves.
The more parts of the plant are affected by the rot, the more difficult it will be for the plant to make a full recovery. It may even die if the root rot is not resolved in its early stages.
You will know your Christmas cactus has root rot if it has limp and sagging leaves.
To be absolutely sure, though, you will need to remove the plant from its pot and wash as much soil from the roots as you can. Be gentle with the roots, because they are quite fragile in this state.
Inspect the roots closely for sections that are brown or black. These roots are rotten and will have to be removed. Use a sterile knife or scissors to prune them off until only the healthy, white roots remain. Then, lay the plant down on some dry paper towels and allow the roots to dry out for a few hours.
Prepare a new pot that has drainage holes at the bottom, and fill it two-thirds with a well-draining potting mix. Place the plant in the middle of the pot and cover the roots with the rest of the potting mix.
Do not water the plant immediately; give it at least a week to recover from the trauma of repotting.
Place it in a spot where it can get lots of bright, indirect light so that it can recover quickly.
Prevent future root rot by avoiding overwatering. Good watering habits are always key, so as long as you are aware of your plant’s needs, you should be able to keep root rot at bay.
Christmas cactus care
To keep your Christmas cactus happy, place it in a part of your home where it can get lots of bright, indirect light.
Water the plant only when the top two inches of soil are dry to the touch. When watering, soak the soil in the pot until excess water flows out of the drainage holes at the bottom. If you are using a saucer below the pot, make sure you empty the water from it after you have let the pot drain.
Repot the plant every two to three years. This plant is fine with being slightly rootbound, so it should be able to forego repotting for a few years. Repotting should be done in the spring or summer; never in the fall because this is when the plant is preparing to bloom.
If you notice some stem sections on the plant turning yellow, this could be a sign of crowded roots, so it might mean repotting is needed.
The Christmas cactus likes a well-draining potting mix and a pot with good drainage.
Because this plant is native to the rainforests of Brazil, it does well in humid environments. If you live in a dry climate, you can help the plant out by placing a pebble tray beneath the pot.As the water evaporates from the tray it will moisten the leaves and the soil in the pot.
You can also place the plant near other humidity-loving plants so that they can create a microclimate around each other.
If you have the means, a humidifier is an option to automatically regulate the humidity levels in the room where the plant is kept.
Ideally, place the plant outdoors during the warmer months, but make sure it is in a spot where it can get shade for a few hours a day. Remember that it does not like direct sunlight. Bring it back indoors when the weather starts getting colder because it does not take well to the cold.
If you keep the plant indoors and do not want it to grow too big or leggy, you can prune back the leaves and stems to keep it at the height and size that you prefer.
Do not worry about wasting the sections you prune off; you can use these to propagate the plant.
Just let the pruned pieces sit for a couple of days so that the ends callus over. Then place them in a container filled with potting mix, about a half-inch deep into the soil. Water the soil and place the container in a spot where the cuttings get bright, indirect light.
After a couple of weeks, give the cutting a gentle tug; if there is resistance, the roots have grown in nicely and you can transfer each new plant to its own pot. After repotting, you can care for the plants as you would a regular plant.
How to make your Christmas cactus bloom
Getting your Christmas cactus to bloom may be a bit tricky.
Start the process by slightly cutting back on the water you give the plant from early to mid-fall. This will trigger dormancy in the plant, and this step is important in making it bloom.
Place the plant in a dark room for half of the day, because when it is preparing to bloom it becomes very sensitive to light. Even low-light conditions with a small lamp in the same room can stop it from blooming.
If you have a dark closet, that is ideal. Place the plant inside and keep the door closed. If you do not have a closet, you can place a dark-colored blanket or cloth over it for 12 hours a day.
The temperature around the plant should be around 50 to 55 degrees Fahrenheit.
Keep the light and temperature conditions this way for six to eight weeks and you should see buds begin to form on the plant.
Once you see the buds, relocate the plant to where it was originally and make sure it does not get exposed to warm or cold drafts.
You can now water the plant like normal. Do not overwater it because this can cause the buds to drop.
About three months after the buds appear, the flowers should bloom.
The Christmas cactus is a popular succulent houseplant native to the tropical rainforests of Brazil. Although it is native to humid rainforests, it is still a succulent that can store water in its body for use in the event of a drought. This means the plant is quite sensitive to too much water.
One of the most common problems in Christmas cacti is limp leaves. The most probable causes of this are overwatering and root rot.
To prevent overwatering and root rot, you need to know how to properly water your Christmas cactus. Check the top two inches of soil in the pot: if the soil is dry, water the plant, but if the soil is still damp, wait one or two days before checking it again.
Image: istockphoto.com / BM