In this article I cover all the steps you need to successfully grow christmas cactus. As well as covering the essential steps you must take to grow a healthy mature plant from seed, I also give detailed instructions for propagating christmas cactus from cuttings in both soil and water.
- How to grow christmas cactus
- How to grow christmas cactus from seed
- How to propagate christmas cactus
How to grow christmas cactus
Below are the instructions for growing christmas cactus as a houseplant. Why only instructions for growing christmas cactus as an indoor plant?
Well, christmas cactus is a tropical plant and this means most areas of the US are not suitable for growing it outdoors due to lower temperatures and more rainfall than this succulent likes. You see christmas cactus is native to the coastal areas of south-eastern Brazil where its natural habitat is warm, humid and tropical. It has evolved to live in tropical conditions and this therefore makes it unsuitable for outdoor growing in most US states.
Only those readers who live in USDA climate zones 9 through 11 should you attempt to cultivate christmas cactus outdoors. For everyone else christmas cactus should only be grown as a houseplant. However, it is possible to bring your christmas cactus outside during the peak of summer in most regions.
In the warmer summer months when temperatures are high and rainfall is limited a christmas cactus will happily live outdoors temporarily. It is generally accepted that christmas cactus must be brought back indoors when outside temperatures fall below 50°F, due to its temperature and humidity requirements, though in my opinion you should really not wait that long. I will bring christmas cactus back indoors when outside temperatures start to dip below 60°F.
Because the average American home maintains a consistent temperature of around 70°F year-round an American home is more than suitable for growing christmas cactus. This is what makes this lovely blooming succulent the perfect indoor plant.
To begin growing christmas cactus you need to get the fundamentals correct. This starts with the soil.
What is the best soil for christmas cactus?
Cacti soil or a succulent potting mix is best for christmas cactus. These soil mixtures are formulated in a way that avoids very high nutrient content and promotes good water drainage. Succulents like christmas cactus absolutely need a soil that drains well as a whole host of problems can ensue when the plant is left to sit in soaked soil.
It is essential you use a good draining soil for christmas cactus. Regular potting mix should never be used on its own.
If you have regular potting mix at hand, or simply want to mix your own soil, then you can use a regular potting mix as long as you add sand and perlite (or vermiculite) to help with drainage and to reduce the richness of the soil. As a general rule-of-thumb aim for a one third mix of all three, i.e. 1/3 potting mix, 1/3 sand and 1/3 perlite or vermiculite.
What kind of pots do Christmas cactus like?
Now that you know which type of soil you should be using to grow christmas cactus what type of pot should you put it in?
Christmas cactus like well draining pots. In fact, a pot that has good drainage is essential for a christmas cactus. Terracotta pots work exceptionally well with christmas cactus because they sweat out moisture from the soil which not only helps with drainage but it also helps to increase humidity levels around the plant.
When choosing a pot for your plant always remember that christmas cacti plants are succulents and no succulent likes to sit in heavily watered soil. The pot must have drainage holes in the bottom.
Christmas cactus can happily go up to three weeks without being watered (see our christmas cactus watering guide) but they can develop problems quickly if they sit in water-drenched soil for even just a few days. So, putting them in a pot that does not have proper drainage is very dangerous for the health of this succulent.
Therefore, whatever pot you choose you must ensure it has very good drainage and, as I previously mentioned, only use well-draining soil alos.
In my many years of experience I have found that terracotta planting pots are by far the best option for any type of succulent, but they are especially beneficial for those succulents that require an environment with high humidity like christmas cactus. And, they look great with christmas cactus!
How to grow christmas cactus from seed
Christmas cactus seeds are extremely small. Each seed is approximately 1 mm in size. The good news is that each flower on a christmas cactus can produce dozens of seeds.
You can buy christmas cactus seeds or, if you own 2 more christmas cactus plants, you can cultivate your own and even cross pollinate two different colored plants.
How to pollinate christmas cactus to produce seeds
With two blooming christmas cacti it is very easy to germinate both plants so they both produce seed-containing pods.
Here is the simply procedure for pollinating a christmas cactus.
Simply take the flower of one plant and rub it against the flower of the other plant. Make sure you rub the inside of one flower against the inside of the other flower.
The long red stem-like appendix that protrudes from the center of the flower is the stigma and beside this is the anther which contains the pollen. See the image below for clarification.
To pollinate the plants simply rub the stigma and anther parts of the flowers together. The pollen from the anther of one lower will attach itself to the stigma of the other flower.
You can actually use this approach to cross pollinate two different types of Schlumbergera cacti or two different colored plants of the same species. Cross pollination can be a lot of fun and seeing the fruits of your labor when the new plants reach maturity and bloom is something every houseplant owner should experience at least once in my opinion.
So, to recap: when you rub the two flowers together the pollen that is on the anther of one flower should attach itself to the stigma of the other flower and when this happens pollination has occurred. You can easily verify this by looking to see if pollen is indeed attached to each stigma.
This is all you need to do to start the process of creating christmas cactus seeds. It’s easy to do but the entire process of going from pollination to harvesting seeds is a lengthy one.
After about 14 days you will notice the pollinated flower will begin to shrivel and die and a small pod, known as fruit, will appear just behind the flower. It will begin to swell as the flower fades.
It can take anywhere from several months to a year for this fruit to ripen enough where it can be harvested for the seeds it contains. I know a year sounds like a long time but trust me it is well worth the wait especially if you are cross pollinating two different plants.
Look at it this way: a year will pass no matter what you do or do not do so why not take 2 minutes of your time and cross pollinate two of your christmas cacti?
If you want to grow a new plant quicker simply buy some seeds.
How to harvest christmas cactus seeds
When the flower has died and fallen away from the plant the small pod-like piece of fruit left over will contain to swell and mature. It can take several months or even up to one year for this fruit to ripen enough for seed harvesting.
When it has ripened it will become puffy and have a beautiful pink color (see image below). When the fruit has ripened you remove it from the tree and harvest the seeds from it.
Simply squeeze the more rounded end of the fruit and the seeds will come out of the other end.
Imagine squeezing a grape at one end and you will have the correct idea of how to do this.
Christmas cactus seeds are very small, measuring only about 1 mm each. When they are squeezed from the fruit they will come out in a long stream (see image below).
It is best to squeeze the fruit over a kitchen towel and then separate the seeds, at best you can, by hand.
Allow the seeds to dry for about 24 hours. Then it will be easier to identify each individual seed for planting.
Once the seeds are dried they are ready for planting though they can be kept for several years as long as you keep them in a dry, cool location preferably in a sealed container or bag. Obviously the longer you keep the seeds the less viable they become and the lower will be the germination success rate.
How to plant christmas cactus seeds
The first step to sowing christmas cactus seeds is to use a good draining container. A simple plastic container with holes punched in the bottom will suffice. I use small flexible potting containers as they have excellent drainage and are very flexible, making it easy to remove plant and soil when it comes time to repot your seedlings. They are also reusable.
Fill the container with the appropriate cacti or succulent soil and then sprinkle the dried christmas cacti seeds onto the top of the soil.
Mist the soil with a fine water spray – do not water the soil from the top with a watering can! Alternatively you can water the soil from the bottom by placing the container into a sink or basin filled with about 1/2 inch of water for approximately 10 – 15 minutes. This will be more than long enough to allow the soil to soak up some moisture.
Cover the container with tenting or a plastic bag so the moisture is sealed in.
Place the container in an area that gets good indirect light (not direct light), or alternatively use a good quality grow light. We outline why it is so important to get the light correct for this type of succulent in the article christmas cactus light requirements and you may find that reading that article will help you choose the correct location for your plant and ensure you get healthy colorful blooms every year.
After about 3 months the seedlings will have grown to be large enough to no longer need the tenting protection and they will be large enough to be transplanted into their permanent pots.
For more detailed information on christmas cactus soil and to discover the best pot to use with this succulent read this article.
How to germinate christmas cactus seeds
There are certain cactus species that can take several months to germinate from seed and unfortunately there is little you can do to speed up the process. Luckily though, christmas cactus is not one of these and their seeds will usually germinate in only 2 – 3 weeks.
As long as you have sowed the seeds in the appropriate succulent soil and ensured they are placed in a warm location with good indirect light, christmas cacti seeds should germinate quickly.
By using tenting, or a simply plastic bag, to cover the pot you lock in moisture and create good humidity levels. This will not only give the seeds a much better chance of germinating but it will greatly speed up the entire process compared to non-tented seeds.
Always be sure the location you choose for your christmas cactus seeds gets plenty of indirect light. Don’t place the seeds in an area that gets direct light as christmas cactus grows best in indirect light and the seedlings will suffer as they grow. If need be use a grow light to help the seedlings grow faster once the seeds have germinated.
It can take 3 – 4 years for a seedling to grow into a fully mature christmas cactus plant.
How to propagate christmas cactus
Now that you understand how easy it is to grow christmas cactus from seeds it’s time to look at the steps needed to propagate christmas cactus with cuttings taken from an existing plant.
Luckily christmas cactus is fairly easy to propagate, unlike some other succulents. And, this succulent will also propagate well in both soil and water, though you must be careful with your christmas cactus watering routine as too much water to a mature plant will have disastrous results.
Let’s see how to do that now.
Growing christmas cactus from cuttings
To propagate christmas cactus you start by taking a cutting from an existing healthy mature plant.
Make sure you take a cutting that is at least a few inches in length. I always aim to make the cut near the base of the stem as this will give me an opportunity to grow several plants from just one cutting.
Once you have cut the leaf stem from the parent plant you should remove any flower buds that are attached to your cutting. If you leave buds on cuttings they will sap a lot of the resources that are needed to help root and grow the new plant. So, if a small bud exists at the end of the cutting simply snip it off with scissors.
Christmas cactus cuttings will still be viable after a few days but I prefer to plant them immediately after cutting as they tend to go limp after a day and are less easy to work with.
Once you have removed any flower buds from the stem cutting you will then divide the cutting into segments by cutting at the point between the individual cladodes (small leaves) as shown in the image below. You can cut these segments or simply break them off with your hands.
Ensure that each cutting, after seperation, has at least 2 – 3 segments on it. This means from a full sized cutting you will likely get between 4 – 6 cuttings. Each of these divided cuttings can be used to propagate a new plant. This gives you a much better chance of growing a new plant as not all of these cuttings will root and grow.
You are now ready to begin the rooting process.
There are two popular ways to root christmas cactus cuttings. Many christmas cactus owners will propagate cuttings in water as this has a very high success rate but most gardeners, myself included, will use the traditional way and simply propagate new plants in soil. Propagating in soil takes the least amount of work and due to its high success rate it is the option that I always choose.
Propagating christmas cactus in soil
Before you take cuttings from a christmas cactus prepare your container and soil for transplanting the cuttings. As I said previously christmas cactus cuttings will still be viable after a few days but it is better to pot them immediately in my opinion as this will give you greater success in growing new plants.
Be sure to use a really good draining cacti or succulent soil. At the risk of repeating myself to repeat visitors to this website I use Miracle Gro cacti potting mix for almost all succulents though
Hoffman do a really soil mix that has also produced good results for me in the past.
It is essential you do not use a regular potting mix. Standard potting mixes that are usually great for houseplants are far too rich for succulents like christmas cactus, and the do not provide enough drainage to protect the plants from root rot. If you do use regular potting mix be sure to mix in equal measures of sand and perlite/vermiculite.
The pot or container you use for growing your cuttings must have good drainage. If you use a homemade container such as a plastic tub, make sure you punch a few holes in the bottom to allow for water drainage.
If the soil is dry then place the container into a basin or sink filled with about 1/2 to 1 inch of water (not so much that it spills over the side of the container). Let the container sit in the water for about 15 minutes or until the soil has soaked up enough water to make the top layer of the soil moist. Do not soak or drench the soil.
Alternatively you can lightly spray the soil with water to achieve the same effect.
Time to plant your cuttings.
Push each cutting into the soil to a depth where about half of the first cladode (small leaf) is in the soil. If the cutting seems unstable simply push it down a little further.
You can usually get about 3 – 4 cuttings planted in a standard sized pot used for cuttings.
It is possible to simply stick the each new cutting of christmas cactus directly into the soil. However, I prefer to first dip the cut end into rooting gel and then immediately afterwards dip it into hormone rooting powder. Over the years I have that this greatly increases propagation rates for all types of plants.
Although many home cacti growers will simply place the new cuttings in a warm location that gets plenty of good indirect light I advise my readers to use tenting as they will greatly increase propagation time and success rates. Christmas cactus love humidity and by using a grow tent, or a simple clear plastic bag placed over the pot, you can lock in moisture and increase the localized humidity directly around the plant.
Once new growth appears you can remove the tenting.
After about 6 – 8 weeks you will see clear signs of new growth on the cuttings that have rooted. If you use rooting gel and powder as advised most of your cuttings should have taken root.
At this point you can add a little fertilizer to help the new plants grow stronger. I would wait another few weeks before transplanting the cuttings into their permanent pots (terracotta pots are best).
Only water your cuttings when the soil has dried out and only water from the bottom. If you use tenting it is extremely unlikely you will need to water the plant until you have removed the tent/bag and the soil has been given time to dry out under normal conditions.
On the rare occasion your tented christmas cactus seedlings appear to be in dry soil (they are likely in a location that is too hot and there may be a hole in the tent) you can use a spray bottle to add a little moisture to the side of the bags. Do not directly spray the seedlings. It is highly unlikely you will need to take this action though.
Rooting christmas cactus in water
Although propagating christmas cactus is very easy in soil, as I demonstrated above, some cacti growers prefer to root their christmas cactus cuttings in water.
Propagating christmas cactus in water is actually a very good way to root a new plant as it is a very effective rooting method for this particular succulent. Although succulent plants do not like to sit water or water-logged soil, succulent cuttings root very well in water.
Below are the steps you need to follow to root christmas cactus in water.
Prepare your cuttings in the same manner described above for preparing cuttings for soil propagation.
In a cup or glass pour some water. I prefer to use distilled water or purified water for cacti propagation as it is purer than regular tap water, though tap water will suffice if its all you have at hand.
Although you can simply leave your cutting in water I like to add a little cacti liquid feed or simple floral feed to the water so there are some nutrients for the cutting to feed on. One or two drops is more than enough.
Place the cuttings in the water ensuring the entire leaf is not covered.
Be sure to replace stale water with fresh water every other day.
How long does it take for christmas cactus to root?
So, how long will you have to wait for your christmas cactus cuttings to take root?
It usually takes between 2 – 3 weeks for a christmas cactus to root. Cuttings root quickly in both soil and water. Within 6 – 8 weeks new growths will appear on a cutting planted in soil indicating that you have a new plant with a healthy root system. Within 6 – 8 weeks the roots of a cutting in water will be long enough to repot the cutting in soil.
As I indicated earlier in this article, I would not transplant soil propagated christmas cactus cuttings into their permanent pot until at least 10 weeks have past since you planted them. However, water-propagated christmas cactus should be potted much sooner. I cannot stress enough that succulents do like to sit water in long-term so when the time has come to plant water-rooted cuttings you must act quickly.
Once a water-propagated christmas cactus succulent has roots that are at least an inch long you can pot it in soil. Do not leave the cutting in water any longer than the time it takes for the root to match the length of the cutting itself.
Be sure to read our detailed christmas cactus care guide so you know how to take care of this succulent once it is fully grown.