How to care for Christmas cactus in Western New York

pink flower on a Christmas cactus in Buffalo NY
Photo by Connie Oswald Stofko

by Connie Oswald Stofko

Jeff Wilson, who has a Christmas cactus that is probably more than 85 years old, shares some tips with us on how to care for these wonderful indoor plants.

We met Wilson and Luis Martinez on Garden Walk Buffalo where they shared their ideas for shade gardening.

Wilson’s oldest Christmas cactus is a plant they call “Grandma” because it came from Wilson’s maternal grandmother. However, it had originally been owned by her mother, Wilson’s great-grandmother.

Christmas cactus dubbed Grandma
The 85-year-old cactus dubbed “Grandma” has woody stems. Jeff Wilson has added decorations on a metal spike– Could the metal be helping the plant? Photo by Connie Oswald Stofko

Grandma is the fussiest of Wilson’s half dozen or so Christmas cactus, he said. One year it got just one or two blossoms, but last year it bloomed after Thanksgiving until his grandmother’s birthday in May.

Before we get to the growing tips, let’s address the question of timing. Christmas cactuses don’t necessarily bloom at Christmas. A couple of Wilson’s plants, pictured here, have been blooming since before Halloween. Others are budding and will begin to bloom in the next few weeks. He has had Christmas cactus blooming at Easter.

red Christmas cactus in Buffalo NY
In addition to the red and pink plants shown here, Jeff Wilson has Christmas cactuses budding now that will bloom in yellow and white. Photo by Connie Oswald Stofko

So how did these plants, part of the Schlumbergera genus of cactus, get dubbed Christmas cactus if they  might  bloom anytime from fall to spring?  I’ve read it’s because the plant is introduced for sale in Europe and North America at Christmastime. In some places they’re sold at Thanksgiving, so people refer to them as Thanksgiving cactus.

If you had a greenhouse, you might be able to control conditions precisely and get it to bloom right at Christmas. For most of us, keeping the plant healthy and getting it to bloom at some point during the year means we’ve been successful.

To get your Christmas cactus to bloom, you want a cool space with indirect light, Wilson said, adding that a three-season room would be perfect.

He keeps his Christmas cactuses and other plants in a space off his living room. Light is coming in the tall window and balcony door, but it’s not direct light– These are north-facing windows. There are no lamps or lights in that area, either.

The area is cool. Wilson and Martinez live in an old house, built in 1915, and while they winterize the windows, the windows might not be as energy-efficient as modern windows. A radiator is nearby, but the area remains between 62 and 69 degrees Fahrenheit during the winter.

Christmas cactus and other plants in room in Buffalo NY
The Christmas cactuses like the north-facing window. The “Grandma” plant is in the blue pot toward the left. Photo by Connie Oswald Stofko

Wilson said his cactuses seem to bud with the first cold snap before they turn on the heat. If your living areas are too warm and sunny, find a cool, dark place to set your Christmas cactus in order to trigger its blooming. Wilson noted that his Christmas cactuses bloomed early in 2006 because they lost power and had no heat for a week after the October Storm.

Drainage is important; a Christmas cactus will rot if it gets too wet, he said. You need lighter potting soil. If the soil gets compacted, it won’t drain well.

Wilson said another trick for getting your Christmas cactus to bloom is to keep it rootbound. He had his Grandma plant in the same pot his grandmother used, but needed to repot it into a heavier stoneware pot so it wouldn’t tip over. The new pot was slightly larger than the original one and Wilson said the plant didn’t bloom again until it had filled in the pot.

To help your plant keep its shape, he suggests turning the pot. However, once the plant is blooming, he won’t touch it. If you disturb the plant the flowers may fall off.

Wilson uses a liquid fertilizer once a month or when he remembers to fertilize. He won’t fertilize when the plants are in bloom for fear that he mess them up.

His grandmother used to tap a nail into the soil. Why? It had something to do with iron, Wilson said. He keeps some decorations in his pots that are on metal spikes. Maybe that helps. If not, it certainly doesn’t seem to hurt.

 by Connie Oswald Stofko

12 Comments on “How to care for Christmas cactus in Western New York

  1. I’m in good company here! I have a large Christmas cactus that my mother gave me years ago; it had belonged to my grandmother and before that my great-grandmother. They’re beautiful plants in themselves but their backstories makes them even more special.

  2. thanks everyone for your kind compliments. Every year, when my cacti first start to bud, I think – “can it be that time of year already”? and then I spend the next two weeks telling them to hurry up and open! I’ve posted a link to some pictures my partner just took of the yellow, white and pink/white plants which have just opened up…

    Happy Holidays!!

  3. David, Christmas cactus seem to be easy plants that flower reliably, if not always at the same time each year. Thanks for writing!


  5. I love my ‘Christmas’ cactus, most of which are blooming or getting ready to bloom now. In summer, I set them out on a covered porch, out of direct sun of course. They come back in when the nights are cool, and once they are inside I begin to water them a bit more. Soon they are covered with bud. One by one I bring them out to a prominent spot in the home to be enjoyed. Once they finish blooming I put them in my bathroom which has north light, and they wait in there the rest of the winter. It seems to be a good routine. I rarely re-pot them, and they are a bit pot-bound. All of this seems to make them happy-and it’s so easy!

  6. Last year my Mom had to leave our childhood home and enter a memory care facility for Alzheimer patients. I simply could not bear to decorate my own home with our vast array of beautiful Christmas decorations – my heart was too heavy. Although I had always kept a Christmas cactus on my dining room windowsill, I was particularly drawn one morning to a display of Christmas cactus plants at Wegmans. Looking at the delicate blossoms somehow softened the pain and took the edge off. I bought several plants and started to fill Mom’s window at the facility with cactus plants. I bought even more and then filled every window and end table space in my whole house with every color of Christams cactus I could find. I put the whole lot of them outside for the summer and as I began to bring them back into the house a couple of weeks ago, I noticed they were loaded with buds and this past week they have exploded into bloom. The beauty and simplicity takes my breath away and though my Mom will never be able to come back home, it cheers me to see her plants blooming happily too.

  7. Congratulations are in orden for your beautiful christmas cacti and all the other beauties that are not christmas cacti. Truly beautiful

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