How to Care for a Christmas Cactus—And Propagate Them After the Holidays

The schlumbergera, also known as a Christmas, Thanksgiving or Easter cactus, are hugely popular during winter.

The flowers that bloom are incredibly festive, and can brighten up any room.

According to the Royal Horticultural Society in the U.K., this genus of cactus usually grow in jungle-type woodlands, even attached to trees, preferring more shade to the desert varieties. They do, however, like humidity, which can mean a cooler, indoor setting with the heating turned on is ideal.

As a result, Christmas cacti are great for the winter, compared to other types of cacti which need little water and lots of heat and sunshine.

Newsweek talked to the experts to find out more about these cacti, including how to propagate them after the holidays.

What is Different About the Christmas Cactus?

According to Thomas Glavich, speaking to Newsweek on behalf of Cactus and Succulent Society of America, what is different about this genus is its roots. The cacti can grow out of other things such as trees and rocks, rather than just the ground.

He explained: "This genus comes almost exclusively from Brazil, where the plant evolved to grow on trees and rocks. It is one of a number of epiphytic genera of cacti, all of which are native to South America."

"Most cacti grow in the ground and require very intense light during their growing seasons. Schlumbergera, growing in shaded trees, does not need or want intense light."

A Christmas cactus
A stock image of a Christmas cactus Getty Images

Neil Miller, head gardener at Hever Castle & Gardens in the U.K., told Newsweek that another factor that makes these cacti distinctive is its flowers.

While other cactus generally do have plants, Christmas cacti are known for their flowers. These bloom even in decreasing light, making them ideal for indoor settings.

Miller told Newsweek: "These distinctive plants with their long leaf-like pads (nodes) that are joined one to the other (rather like the plant version of stickle bricks) enjoy shades of white, pink or magenta flowers which burst forth from the areoles at the tips of the nodes."

"Unlike their prickly cousins, this plant doesn't have spines."

How To Care For a Christmas Cactus

Justin Hancock from Costa Farms, gave Newsweek some top tips on how to keep your cactus healthy, including when to water, the amount of light they need and what soil to use.

Naturally, these cacti grow in Brazil with shade and not a huge amount of water, so Hancock suggested mimicking its natural habitat to help the cactus thrive.

A Christmas cactus
A stock image of a Christmas cactus Getty Images

He said: "It's best to try to reproduce its native growing conditions, so give it bright, but indirect light. In Northern areas, Christmas cactus may take some direct sun in the morning, but it's better to filter direct sun with a sheer curtain or keep it a couple of feet back from a sunny window, especially in the South."

"Water it lightly and somewhat frequently to keep it just barely moist, but never wet or soggy. If possible, give it average to above-average relative humidity levels. In especially arid climates, keeping it in a room with a small humidifier or a lot of other plants may help.

"If you wish to fertilize, do so in the spring and summer months when it's actively growing. One way to make fertilizing super-easy is to use a time-release fertilizer once a year."

Erin Marino of The Sill suggested watering every one to two weeks as a guide, while Glavich insisted on having your cactus in a pot with drainage holes, to stop the plant from becoming water-logged. He also suggested using plant food, with fertilizer working well as an alternative.

Miller also stressed the importance of making sure to prune your cactus back after it flowers. This process will help more blossoms to come through, and these can then be used to propagate (to breed another plant from your existing one).

Can you Propagate Christmas Cacti?

If you wish to propagate your cactus, this is absolutely possible to achieve at home.

Miller said using stems from a previous year is a great place to start, and drying them out is an important step before planting.

A Christmas cactus
A stock image of a Christmas cactus Getty Images

He said: "It's really simple and easy to propagate the Christmas cactus. Take a stem from the plant - take one that's three nodes in length. Leave the potential cutting to one side for two days, then once it's dried a little over these 48 hours you can pop it into some soil that's made with a sandy mix."

"Make sure you plant it at least one 'leaf-pad' deep into the soil."

Another way to do this, Glavich says, is to use manual pollination if you have two plants with different colored flowers, using a small brush to collect pollen from one to the other.

He said: "Manual pollination with a small brush, collecting pollen from one plant, and putting it on the other will often result in fruit. The fruit will have small seeds that can be started in normal seed starting mix in the spring (not the winter.)"

"Vegetative propagation is also easy, again in the spring, not the winter. A cutting of two segments can be taken, left to dry for about a week, and then potted up in perlite or any other rooting medium."

As Glavich mentions, these methods are best done in the spring, allowing the cacti to bloom and blossom in the winter.

Once propagated, Christmas cactus can be ideal as gifts as well as household plants which are safe to keep.

Marino added: "Worth noting, this plant is considered pet-friendly, i.e. non-toxic, by the ASPCA. That means you can feel comfortable keeping it around curious cats and dogs."

On that note, Newsweek have highlighted which plants are toxic to cats and dogs respectively.