Christmas cacti bloom with neon flower buds in mid-December, bringing colorful flowers to the holiday season. Though they are considered somewhat easy to grow, several common Christmas cactus problems can sneak up on your plant!
These problems can pop up when the plant has received less than ideal care.
Rot, fungus gnats, purple leaves, droopy foliage, and flowers that drop before blooming are just a few of the problems that can plague these gorgeous houseplants.
These problems aren’t specific to Christmas cacti alone; Thanksgiving cacti can also succumb to health problems. Proper preventative care throughout the growing season is essential for preventing disease in both holiday cacti, but sometimes problems occur even when we do our best!
Let’s dive into the nine most common health issues facing Christmas cactus plants- and what you can do to encourage plant recovery and health!
Hi there! If we haven’t met, my name is Jamie. I’m a lifelong plant enthusiast with a degree in environmental tech. I love the surprising beauty of these holiday flowers and have devoted myself to studying + understanding their quirks.
1. Drooping And Mushy Leaves
The most common reason why holiday cacti develop drooping or mushy leaves is because of excess water caused by over watering and poor soil.
In it’s native environment, a cacti’s soil is very loose and full of decaying plant matter. A loose soil medium allows for quick drainage-this epiphytic plant does not like water sitting on its roots!
These holiday plants need fast drainage and too much water combined with thick soil will cause them to suffer.
To prevent drooping and mushy leaves use a potting mix with an equal mix of orchid bark, potting soil, and perlite. (Get our recipe here). Make sure the container has drainage holes on the bottom of the pot.
A good watering schedule is also essential and it must be based on the microclimate your plant lives in.
The Fix: If your plant has drooping and mushy leaves, make sure you are using a potting soil for Christmas cacti that has great drainage. Adjust your watering schedule and only water when the soil is dry.
2. Wilted, Shriveled Leaves
Under-watering will starve your plant of both water and nutrient uptake, and shriveled leaves will be the result!
Though overwatering is more common, if a plant does not receive enough water it will suffer!
The Fix: Develop a proper watering schedule to prevent under-watering your cacti. Wait until the top two inches of soil are dry, then water your plant deeply with a gentle stream of water.
3. Root Rot
If the leaves on your cacti are soft or mushy, you should check in on the roots to ensure they are not rotting.
Root rot is an unfortunate condition where the roots on your plant begin to decay. The first signs of rot are a mushy stem, soft leaves, or foul-smelling soil, though the entire plant can eventually die!
Damp soil and excessive watering are the number one reasons root rot occurs. The moist conditions lead to fungal diseases and decay.
The fix: Gently pull your plant out of the container. Then, inspect the roots and cut out any that are slimy or decayed. Repot your cacti with well-draining soil that provides proper drainage and give your plant time to dry out between watering.
4. Stem Rot
Basal stem rot can occur when a Christmas cactus is -you guessed it- overwatered. The plant is especially susceptible to stem rot if it is continuously sitting in cool, soggy soil. The stem of the cactus will have brown, watery spots.
Unfortunately, it can be tough to treat this condition because the very base of the plant has developed rot.
If your plant has stem rot, it’s time to face the music: you must take what cuttings you can from your plant and start over fresh.
To do this, look for segments of leaves that are very healthy. Twist off these clades and propagate them in water, soil, or air. (Learn how to propagate them here).
Propagating will help you make the most of the situation by salvaging some new plants from your dying cacti!
The Fix: Take what cuttings you can, and toss the plant. To prevent stem rot in the future, avoid overwatering and ensure your plant has excellent drainage in the bottom of the pot.
5. Christmas Cactus Dropping Buds
There is no greater tragedy than a Christmas cactus that is about to bloom, losing its buds! And stress can cause a holiday cactus to lose its flowers at an inopportune time.
Sudden changes in temperature and humidity can cause Christmas cactus to drop their buds. Excess watering can also cause flower buds to fall, so watch that watering schedule like a hawk!
Moving a Christmas or Thanksgiving cactus can also cause the buds to drop. It’s best to get the cacti in its ideal location before blooms begin to form.
Bud drop is unfortunate, but if you make changes to your plant’s care before the following season, you should be able to recover the flowers during the next bloom cycle.
The Fix: Adopt a proper watering schedule and avoid moving your plant when it’s in bloom.
6. Leaves Turning Purple
There are several reasons leaves can turn purple:
- Lack of light. If you are growing your cacti in a low light area, it may protest and turn it’s beautiful green foliage shades of purple. Alternatively, too much light can also cause this problem! Use bright, indirect, diffused light for your cactus. Think of the plant’s natural growing environment: it thrives in the diffused light found beneath a jungle canopy of other plants.
- Cold temperatures: We have found that chilly temps can cause the leaves to turn purple. Keep your plant in warm temperatures between 65 and 70 degrees Fahrenheit. Avoid cooler temperatures and extreme fluctuations in temps whenever possible.
- Lack of water. When a plant does not get enough water, it may become stressed, and the leaves will turn purple or purple-ish red.
- Lack of Nutrients: Holiday cacti are continually given a rich supply of nutrients from the detritus around them in their natural environment. There are only so many nutrients in the potting mix, and these nutrients eventually get depleted. This poor soil can lead to leaf discoloration. Fertilize your plant every spring and upgrade the cacti to a bigger pot and fresh soil every 3-5 years.
7. Blooming In October (Early Blooms)
You may find yourself in the middle of autumn wondering, why is my Christmas cactus is blooming early?!
The first thing to investigate for early blooms is what type of cactus you truly have. Christmas cacti are often marketed as Thanksgiving cacti. Though they are similar, they are two distinct members of the Schlumberger family.
If you have picked up a “Christmas cactus” from a big box store, nursery, or grocery store, chances are it’s a Thanksgiving cactus. It can be a challenge to find a true Christmas cactus!
Thus, it may bloom early- even in October, but usually in November.
The leaf shape is the easiest way to tell the difference between the two plants. Learn more about the distinct characteristics between the two cacti here.
The other reason a Christmas cactus may bloom early is simply because of your plant’s specific environment. Daylight, humidity, and temperature are different all over the world!
The particular micro-climate in which you live will affect the bloom time.
The best approach to early blooms is to try to embrace the flowering process whenever it comes. While it’s a treat to have the plant bloom right at Christmas, this isn’t always possible.
8. Christmas Cactus Not Blooming
Late or early blooming can be disappointing, but not nearly as bad as a holiday cactus that doesn’t bloom at all! A lack of blooms guarantees heartache for a die-hard Christmas cactus fan.
The most likely reason that a cactus fails to bloom is the growing environment it lives in. The plant must have specific growing conditions in the fall, including colder temps and shorter hours of daylight.
The cacti must have the following conditions met to set it’s buds:
- 12-14 hours of darkness every day, 6-8 weeks in the fall
- These extended hours of darkness should be joined with cooler temperatures, around 55-60 degrees Fahrenheit at night
These two specific environmental conditions should stimulate your plant to produce blooms. Referred to as short-day plants, they rely on these shorter daylight times as their cue to set their buds!
Many times, this happens naturally in your home. The bloom development may be stunted if your plant is in a hot area with long hours of artificial daylight.
The Fix: Make sure your plant receives the right ratio of light to dark + cool evening temperatures. Add fertilizer in late spring for an extra bloom boost.
9. Spider Mites
Spider mites are a common pest on houseplants and they can infest holiday cactus as well.
While a small infestation is harmless, the bugs will eventually damage the leaves as they suck the juice from the leaf cell.
The Fix: Keep mites under control by treating them at first site. Thoroughly wash the spider mites off the plant, then treat with insecticidal soap.
10. Yellow Leaves
Spider mites can cause yet another problem for our beloved cacti- yellowing leaves! The damage to the plant leaves can cause this discoloration.
Other culprits of yellowing leaves: too much direct sunlight, lack of water, or soil that is lacking in nutrients.
The Fix: Trouble shoot what is causing your plant’s leaves to go yellow. Is it poor soil? Mites? Or bad lighting?
How To Care For Christmas Cactus To Prevent Problems
The best way to prevent problems with your holiday cactus is by giving it excellent care upfront- before the problems develop!
As a quick refresher, here’s how to care for your plants so they thrive:
- Give your plants a loose, well-draining soil medium that is slightly acidic and full of nutrients.
- Lighting: Avoid too much direct sunlight and opt for bright, indirect light for your cacti. Remember the natural habitat is full of diffused light, look for similar lighting conditions in your home!
- Don’t overwater or underwater your plant- check the soil for dryness prior to watering
- Humidity! As tropical plants, give these cacti moderately high humidity levels of 50-60%.
With their vibrant flowers in early winter, Christmas cacti are a joy to grow! But like all houseplants, these beauties are susceptible to disease.
The best way to prevent problems is to keep a close eye on your plant throughout the year, giving it proper water, soil, light, and humidity.
Most problems are caused by over-watering, so make sure to soak your plant and then let it dry until the top layers of soil are dry!
Please leave comments below if you have any questions or concerns. I read and respond to each one, and I love hearing from you!