Over the years, I’ve kept several Christmas cactus in the home, and I’ve encountered many of the common Christmas cactus problems. Generally speaking, I love the Christmas cactus because they require less work than other plants to keep healthy, and they can live for decades—my mom had one over 50 years old! While they can live for a long time, you can run into problems with them. Stay tuned because I’ll highlight the issues, the causes and how to solve each one.
Problem #1: Pale or Red Plant Leaves
You put the Christmas cactus over in the south-facing window, but you check it one day to notice how the leaves on it turned red, purple or pale. In fact, this issue commonly happens with other cactus, too, where too much direct sunlight can turn the plant leaves red. Incidentally, the Christmas cactus leaves turn red for the same reason. It means that your Christmas cactus is getting too much direct sunlight.
Now, in some cases, people even do this purposely to bring out the pretty colors of the plant, but you must keep a close eye on it. Too much sunlight will kill a Christmas cactus. Now, I said that red leaves are a problem, but if it only has a light red tint, the plant may do fine.
Move the Christmas out of the south window if you put it there. Otherwise, check to see if it receives direct sunlight in the area you placed it. Most Christmas cactus prefer eight hours of indirect sunlight. If you use artificial light, they prefer 10 hours. Too much sunlight can damage the stem region beyond repair.
To get indirect sunlight, you should search for a type of filter to the sunlight. For example, the tree canopy can act as a filter if it lets in enough indirect sunlight. Furniture or curtains could play the same role. Look for what will shield the plant from the sun’s rays.
Especially if you will put the Christmas Cactus outside, you will want to put it in an area with indirect sunlight.
Problem #2: Limp or Droopy Christmas Cactus Leaves
Check your Christmas cactus because in some cases, this happens because you overwatered it. Wilted or shriveled leaves indicate the same problem—overwatering. You can especially tell that you overwatered it if the Christmas cactus produces no flowers during the blooming season. It blooms from November to December.
Feel the flat stems and if they feel soft or mushy, you may need to cut back on watering. In the most severe cases, the Christmas cactus emits a foul odor because of the rot in the plant or rot in its roots.
You should water your Christmas cactus on average of once every one to two weeks. I would err on the side of every two weeks because you already overwatered it. Overwatering a Christmas cactus will always do more harm than underwatering it. It recovers more easily. You can tell if you underwatered it because the soil will feel bone dry, and you may see wilting at the stem.
After the blooming season, stave off watering it for four to six weeks because the Christmas cactus enters a rest period during this time. You need to give it a rest period so that it will bloom for the next season.
Check the soil, too, because Christmas cactus soil should drain easily. Similar to other cacti, it needs soil with good drainage, or it will hold in the water. You may not overwater it at all, and instead, you simply don’t have good drainage.
Problem #3: Shriveled or Wilted Christmas Cactus Leaves
Most commonly, your Christmas cactus will shrivel or wilt when too dry. In some cases, direct sunlight dries out the soil too much. Your plant soil may dry out quickly because of:
- Loose soil
- Invasive fungi
- Low humidity
- Internal water channels
- Too much sunlight
You do require some dryness with Christmas cactus soil or it can lead to worse problems. Figuring out when your Christmas cactus needs water can prove a guessing game, but you usually want moisture at least 2 inches down into the soil.
Now, you can either guess when it needs water, which you can still be wrong about and kill the plant, or you can buy the XLUX Soil Moisture Meter. What I like about the moisture meter is that it eliminates the guesswork, doesn’t require any batteries (so you don’t need to keep investing in batteries), and you will find that your Christmas cactus is in a healthier condition, not stinking up the house because of root rot from overwatering It also doesn’t cost that much, so what’s the risk? Give it a try from the link above!
Problem #4: Christmas Cactus Misses the Blooming Season
Especially when I first started with the Christmas cactus, I would often find that the plant kept growing, but it wouldn’t bloom. What gives? The blooming season for the Christmas cactus happens from November to December. In some cases, it may happen in early January, but this isn’t as common. If it fails to bloom during that time, you missed the blooming season.
Now, a Christmas cactus not producing flowers won’t put your plant in danger of dying, but you’ll miss the beautiful buds and flowers. The blooming season is one of the most satisfying times to own a Christmas cactus, so it can make you feel disappointed if it doesn’t blossom—I’ve been there.
In some cases, artificial light can cause it to not bloom properly or if the temperatures rise above 70° F during the day and 60° F to 65° F at night. Beware of a lack of water as well because it often uses water as energy to produce blossoms.
The Christmas cactus originates in the rainforests of Brazil, and the change in the climate during the winter triggers the flowering process. For that reason, you want to create the same conditions as in the Amazon rainforests to trigger the flowering process.
Be aware that this process begins in September, so you want to put the Christmas cactus in a less-used room during this time. Make sure that the temperature drops down to 60° F to 65° F. Don’t turn on the lights at night in that room since this can hurt the blossoming. The plant needs at least 14 hours of darkness and eight hours of indirect sunlight.
Beware of street lights from outside that can trigger an incorrect light cycle.
Afterward, you don’t need to follow the same rigorous light schedule. If you mess up, don’t worry too much since it may take practice to get it right.
Let’s say that you must enter the room at night. My mom would cover the Christmas cactus with a thick black plastic garbage bag, but you could use a black cloth as well. You can enter the room but only do it if you must. And don’t do it at all if you can help it. Go in the room during the day instead.
Also, don’t leave the light on for too long, and turn it out as quickly as possible. Usually, you put on the black garbage bag at 8 pm and remove it in the morning to mimic about 8 hours of sunlight—the same as in its natural habitat during the winter season.
Problem #5: Christmas Cactus Leaves Keep Falling Off
Watch the watering of your cactus closely because leaves fall off due to overwatering or underwatering. When it happens because of overwatering, your roots may suffer from root rot. The longer the roots stay wet, the higher the risk of root rot. As the roots weaken, they can’t perform the same function as they once did.
Because of the weakened state of your roots, they never transfer the water to the leaves. When this happens, the leaves will fall off. The leaves often feel mushy and soft after falling off because of a lack of water. It basically happens for the same reason with underwatering.
In some cases, this may cause the leaves to fall off because of issues with the pot. Christmas cactus can grow up to 2 feet within a few years. If you keep the same pot as what you originally had, you risk losing leaves from that as well.
The reason behind it is that the plant will drop off leaves as a way to conserve energy. The dropping of the leaves happen because of nutrient deficiency. The plant, as the pot becomes too crowded, sheds the leaves as a way to survive through the conservation of its energy.
If the issue relates to overwatering, you need to cut back on watering. For example, if you water once a week, cut it back to every two weeks. You do more damage from overwatering than you do from underwatering, so you may want to keep it lighter.
Now, on the other hand, we talked about the Christmas cactus and how they outgrow their pots. You may need to buy a new Christmas cactus pot. I’d recommend this terracotta pot because it has a great style that will make your home look even better.
Terracotta is also a great pot because of how it lets the soil of Christmas cactus breathe due to its porous material. This prevents root rot.
Related article: Best Pot for Christmas Cactus
Problem #6: Gray Mold on Christmas Cactus
You can spot this problem when you look at the Christmas cactus to see a whitish-gray mold growing on the leaves of your plant. They call this Botrytis blight, and it most often forms on the plant because of overwatering. You may start to see black spots, also known as necrotic spots, forming on your Christmas cactus. It may happen if the humidity in the room reaches excess levels that let the bacteria form in the leaves of the plant. When it happens because of too much humidity in the room, it will attack the stems of the plant. In some cases, you may see it forming on the blossoms of your plant.
Don’t try to spray fungicides on it because it’s hard on you, your family and your pets, and this bacteria acts fast, and it will kill your plant quickly. It flourishes in dead plant tissue. In fact, once the Botrytis blight becomes visible on the plant, it means that the fungus had already been culminating for the last two to three weeks.
You need to isolate your plant away from all the others and pay close attention to the other plants because this fungus starts out small, but it can go on to infect an entire space and kill off all of your plants. The fungus spreads from a breeze or from water that splashes over into the next plant.
If the fungus starts before the blooming season, it can prevent the flowers from opening. To save the plant, you need to isolate the infected plants and remove all diseased flowers and leaves. Disinfect your pruning tools as well with a 10 percent bleach solution or a 70 percent alcohol solution. If you’d rather buy it, I’d recommend the Grower’s Ally Fungicide Spray for Plants.
Hopefully, this shows you some of the most common Christmas cactus problems and how to solve them. Compared to other plants, Christmas cactus grow easily, but you need to understand some of the problems you may encounter. Unlike most other types of cactus, Christmas cactus inhabit the tropical climate, rather than desert climates. You want to understand that a failure to understand their natural habitat can lead to problems.
Over time, I became better and better at handling the Christmas cactus as my knowledge of this wonderful plant grew.