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What Is a Christmas Cactus?
A Christmas cactus (Schlumbergera bridgesii) is a unique blooming succulent with long, draping stems that bloom with vibrant flowers. This distinct winter plant originates from the tropical rainforests of Brazil, where it grows on trees or rocks in heavy shade. There are three types of Christmas cacti: Thanksgiving, Easter, and Christmas—each plant type is named for the holiday nearest its blooming time. Christmas cacti are available in a wide array of colors including magenta, yellow, purple, white, pink, and orange.
What Is the Difference Between Christmas Cacti, Thanksgiving Cacti, and Easter Cacti?
Christmas cactus, Thanksgiving cactus, and Easter cactus belong to a group of similar species that are often all sold under the name “Christmas cactus” or “holiday cactus.” The main differences between the succulents lie in their leaves and bloom cycles:
- Christmas cacti bloom in early winter: The true Christmas cactus (Schlumbergera bridgesii) has scalloped leaves and blooms in early winter.
- Easter cacti bloom in early spring: The Easter cactus (Rhipsalidopsis gaertneri or Hatiora gaertneri) has rounded leaves and blooms in February or March.
- Thanksgiving cacti bloom in late fall: The Thanksgiving cactus (Schlumbergera truncata) has claw-like leaves and blooms in late fall.
How to Care for a Christmas Cactus
Whether you received a Christmas cactus as a holiday present or purchased one at the grocery store, here’s how to care for your new plant:
- Place in bright, indirect light. Christmas cacti prefer at least eight hours of bright, indirect light. However, direct sunlight can burn a Christmas cactus, so be sure to filter any direct sunlight through a curtain or keep the plant in a spot that doesn’t receive direct sun.
- Water when the soil feels dry. Even though Christmas cacti are succulents, they don’t originate from a dry, desert landscape—rather, they’re from the wet, tropical rainforests of Brazil. They require more regular watering than other succulents (but not as much water as other plants). In general, water when the top inch of soil feels dry to the touch. Depending on the temperature and humidity level in your home, this often equates to roughly once a week. Avoid overwatering—excess water can lead to root rot.
- Use the right pot and soil. Christmas cactus plants need well-draining soil and a pot with drainage holes to thrive. Also, avoid choosing a pot that’s too big. While certain plants have a hard time blooming unless their roots can grow wild and free, Christmas cacti prefer to be slightly pot-bound. Being pot-bound encourages them to grow and bloom. When potting or repotting your Christmas cactus, select a pot only slightly larger than your plant’s root ball, and only repot every few years if you notice your cactus starting to slow in growth.
- Aim for mild temperatures. Christmas cacti don’t do well in frigid or hot environments. Aim to keep the indoor temperature between 55 and 75 degrees Fahrenheit.
- Keep it in a humid place. Since Christmas cacti are tropical plants that originate in Brazilian rainforests, they prefer humid conditions. If possible, keep your Christmas cactus in a room with more humidity, such as your bathroom or kitchen. You can also opt to place a drainage tray of pebbles below the pot to preserve moisture.
- Stimulate dormancy for blooms. While your cactus may bloom naturally on its own, to encourage flowering during a particular time of year (like Christmas time), you may need to stimulate a period of dormancy for your plant. Christmas cacti use natural weather conditions to determine when it’s time to bloom, and indoor cacti don’t receive these signals when they’re in a warm, well-lit place year-round. To encourage your Christmas cactus to bloom during Christmastime, you’ll want to start preparing it in late September or early October. You’ll need to reduce watering, keep the plant in cooler temperatures (around 55 degrees Fahrenheit), and ensure it’s getting at least 12 hours of darkness every night. Once your plant begins to develop flower buds, move it back into indirect sunlight to encourage them to bloom.
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