Wrinkled Christmas Cactus Leaves – Causes and Fix

Wrinkled Christmas Cactus Leaves - Causes and Fix

Christmas cacti, with the botanical name Schlumbergera, grow on trees or rocks in shady, high-humidity areas. These cacti are native to the coastal mountains of south-eastern Brazil. They usually bloom right in time for Christmas and their colorful flowers can be red, white, yellow, pink or purple. Despite being relatively hardy and low-maintenance, these plants are still prone to health problems if their basic cultural needs are not met. One such problem is wrinkled, curled-up leaves, which we will discuss further in this article.

Wrinkled Christmas cactus leaves – Causes and fix 

Christmas cactus leaves tend to become wrinkled and shriveled when the plant is underwatered. This is because the water stores in its leaves have  been depleted, causing the cells to shrink and resulting in the shriveled appearance.

To remedy the situation, the best thing to do is give your plant a thorough soak-watering. This process will allow it  to absorb sufficient water for its foliage to become plump again. The shriveled and wrinkled texture of the leaves will then disappear. 

Soak-watering process: Solution for wrinkled Christmas cactus leaves 

  • First, fill a sink or tub with at least three to four inches of water. Make sure that the water is neither too hot nor too cold.
  • Place the affected plant in the water. Check that the pot has a drainage hole through which the water can be absorbed; otherwise this method will not work. 
  • Allow the affected plant to soak up the water for at least 45 minutes. 
  • Once this time is up, touch the top of the soil to check whether you can feel moisture in the top two to three inches of soil. 
  • If the top of the soil is still dry, give the plant some water from the top, too. 
  • Drain the water from the sink or tub and leave the pot to drain there for some time, to get rid of any excess water. 
  • Return the affected plant to its original spot after the water has drained. The wrinkled texture of the leaves should soon disappear now that the plant has got the water it needs. 

After a few days, test the soil to see whether it is dry again. If the soil is left to dry out for too long between waterings, it will crack and pull away from the container’s side. If you water plants with hard and cracked soil, the water tends to run down the cracks or down the sides of the pot, rather than being properly absorbed throughout the soil. The roots will therefore not get water, and the plant’s leaves will shrivel as a result. 

Other Christmas cactus problems: 

1. Limp Christmas cactus 

If your plant becomes limp, it could be that the soil is too wet or the plant needs to be repotted. You will need to replace the old soil with a fresh potting mix. Remove the affected plant from its container and shake or brush away the old soil from its roots. If there are any black or brown roots, those are rotten and should be trimmed away before repotting the plant. 

Transfer the plant to a new pot, using fresh, well-draining soil. You can make your own quality potting mix by combining two parts potting soil with one part vermiculite or sand. Repot the plant every two to three years to ensure that it does not go limp again. 

2. Red or pink Christmas cactus leaves 

Christmas cactus leaves can turn red or pink when the plant is stressed, exposed to direct sunlight or underwatered. Unlike most succulents, Christmas cacti cannot tolerate heat and drought. Rather, they thrive in partial shade during the warm season and in full sunlight during winter. If your plant has red foliage but looks otherwise healthy, check its light exposure and try moving it to a shadier spot. Also check the moisture level in the soil. If you let the soil dry out for long periods between watering, it could result in plant stress and red foliage. 

3. Christmas cactus turning brown

Brown foliage usually indicates that the plant has root rot, which is due to poor drainage or overwatering. To confirm that the problem is root rot, you will need to remove the plant from its pot to inspect the roots. Roots that are brown or black and have a foul odor are rotten. 

Cut away the affected roots, but be sure not to destroy the entire root system while doing so. Leave the firm, white roots alone, as these are the healthy ones. Transfer the plant to a clean pot and add fresh potting soil. 

To avoid root rot and brown foliage, water the plant only when the top two to three inches of soil feel dry to the touch. 

4. Leaves falling off 

If the leaves are falling off your Christmas cactus, it could be due to improper watering, too much heat, intense light, poorly-draining soil, or cold temperatures. To resolve the issue, you will need to ascertain which of these factors is causing the problem. Make sure you are watering the plant only when the top few inches of soil feel dry, and that the soil is well-draining. The latter can be achieved by mixing two parts good quality potting soil and one part perlite or vermiculite. Check that the ambient temperature around your plant is not in the extremes, and that it is not exposed to direct sunlight during the summer months.

5. Slowed or stunted growth 

If your plant is not growing and the pot is significantly larger than the size of the root mass, you can stimulate the growth of its roots by repotting it in a pot that is two to three inches smaller than the current pot. See to it that the pot has drainage holes and that it is still large enough to hold the width and depth of the plant’s roots. The plant will flourish if it is a little root-bound. 

Fertilize the plant from early April to early September by mixing a gallon of water with a teaspoon of Epsom salts. This supplies the plant with magnesium and will encourage the growth of new foliage. 


Christmas cacti are popular houseplants with colorful, tubular flowers. They originated in south-eastern Brazil and are not drought-resistant like their desert relatives. The leaves of these plants are prone to wrinkling and shriveling when they are underwatered, due to the loss of moisture in the plant tissue. To resolve this issue, give the plant a thorough soak-watering so that it has time to absorb sufficient moisture to replenish its reserves, and the leaves will become plump and firm again. 

Image: istockphoto.com / Nadezhda_Nesterova