How to care for Christmas cactus at home

You've brought a Christmas cactus home – here's how to keep it alive and blooming all through the holidays season

Christmas cactus
(Image credit: Unsplash/Jerry Wang)

Christmas cactus is a beautiful and exotic winter-blooming indoor plant native to Brazil, and is a popular alternative to Christmas plants such as poinsettia. In winter, the plant produces gorgeous flower on the tips of its stems, in vivid colours ranging from pink to purple (and sometimes yellow). 

We wouldn't necessarily call these plants high-maintenance, but there are a few care tips to bear in mind when brining one home. Properly cared for, a Christmas cactus will thrive indoors for many years, producing flowers every year.

Where should I position my Christmas cactus?

This is probably the most important decision to make in order to make sure your Christmas cactus thrives – and, crucially, that it blossoms. Native to the Brazilian rainforest, this plant isn't like most plants in that it must have complete darkness at night for at least 13 hours (14 is optimal). This means that unlike for some common houseplants you can't have it in a room that has artificial lighting on in the evenings, unless you can remember to put it away in a dark cupboard every evening. 

During the day, Christmas cacti like plenty of bright light and morning sun, but take care not to scorch them with direct sun during lunchtime. An east-facing window is best, so long as there aren't any draughts. 

How much watering does it need?

Although it's called a cactus it's not like other cacti that hardly ever need watering. If the Christmas cactus doesn't get enough water, it will drop its flower buds before they even open. So, water whenever the soil feel dry – really drench it with water, then let the excess completely drain. Avoid standing it in water, as it will succumb to root rot. When the plant is in bloom, water it more often. 

The other thing to remember is that Christmas cacti like humidity in the air. If your house is dry, try misting it or positioning it in a dish with water filled with pebbles. The pebbles will keep the plant from getting soggy, while the water will raise the humidity around it. Keep away from fireplaces and radiators.

In the weeks leading up to and during the flowering period, feed the plant with good-quality indoor plant fertiliser. 

Common problems with Christmas cactus

The most common issue with cacti is failure to bloom, or a very short blooming period with not many flowers. That's almost always due to the plant not getting enough darkness at night, or the temperature around it not being cool enough. Both conditions – cool temperatures of around 65°F/18°C and the dark/light contrast – need to be met for the plant to flower. 

If the plant is wilting and dropping its flowering, you're probably under watering it. If it's yellowing, you're overwatering. We recommend feeling the soil with your finger: whenever it feels dry to the touch, it's time to water.