Christmas Cactus is a great plant for more than the holidays

By Kathy Conner Cornell VCE Southside Master Gardener Years ago, and I mean years ago like over 50, a friend gave me a cutting from a Christmas cactus Schlumbergera that came from his Grandmother’s plant. I still have this plant through all those years and at least 3 moves later. I now have a few more and they always are a joy and easy to care for. A publication from Michigan Extension states that “The “trick” to getting Christmas cactus to bloom in the following years after purchase comes down to two things: light and temperature.” In my experience that is exactly correct. My husband and I like having our house on the cool side and in order to bloom Christmas cactus wants temperatures in the low 60’s, even into the 50’s. As for light, the plant needs to have sixteen hours of darkness and eight of light for an extended period of time. My sister asked why her plant never bloomed and I explained she had it near a window that had a street lamp outside so there was too much light. Just that amount of light can throw the flowering cycle off. The Chicago Botanical Garden suggests covering the plant with a bag, a paper one please but a dark pillow case or dark cloth would also work. Apparently cooler temperatures will offset some of the light aspects.
The bright hot pink blooms of this Thanksgiving cactus bring color into our winter homes. Note the pointy teeth at the end of each segment. Christmas cactus have smooth edges. There are actually two kinds of plants that are thrown in the Christmas cactus category – Thanksgiving cactus and Christmas cactus. My Thanksgiving cactus S. truncata is blooming now. It has been called the crab claw cactus. It is easy to identify by the pointy teeth at the end of each segment. The Christmas cactus S. bridgesii has smooth margins on each segment. Blooms are similar and are available in hot pink, yellow, red and white. I noticed several colors for sale at the grocery store last week. Both the Christmas and Thanksgiving cactus come from tropical rain forest regions of Brazil where they are epiphytic, meaning the plant depends on another plant for support but not food, and grow on tree branches. Therefore, the plant loves to be outside in the summer and this will help it survive our dry houses in the winter. Give it mostly shade but some sun but not full sun. As for watering, I don’t give it any special care, just a drink once a week spring to fall and a drink every week and a half during the winter. I use a diluted strength worm casting tea for a weekly fertilizing. My interior plants instructor told us it was better to give plants a weak strength fertilizer at each watering versus a big blast once a month. Plants, even those blooming now like the Christmas cactus, should not be fertilized from December to the end of February. As for potting soil, just regular potting soil is fine or a cactus mix will do. In order to bloom, the Christmas cactus needs to be pot bound. If you pot up to a bigger size expect to have a couple of years without blooms while the root system fills in. Sometimes the older stems get woody. I wasn’t sure what to do about that but my cats, Tail and No Tail, took care of it. Sometimes as they played they would bump into the plant and many of those old woody stems broke off. This was exactly the pruning the cactus needed so it flushed out very nicely. While we all are practicing ‘social distancing’ and Halifax County buildings are still closed to the public due to COVID-19, if you have gardening questions, you can best reach an Extension Master Gardener or Extension staff member by sending an email to or If you can’t email, you can call and leave a message at the Extension Master Gardener Help Desk at 434-830-3383, giving us your name, telephone number and nature of the call. The Help Desk phone is checked regularly and someone will get back to you, although it may be from a different telephone number. Keep washing your hands, wearing your mask and maybe you will be lucky enough to receive a Christmas cactus during this holiday season.