Christmas cactus, though easy to take care of, are notorious for being finicky or fussy. For many reasons, they might refuse to bloom when expected, go limp or droop, or leave might begin to drop. These are just a few Christmas cactus problems that can be overwhelming especially for newbies.
Christmas cactus is arguably one of the most sought-after houseplants because while many other plants go into dormancy, their blooming season begins in the wake of winter, ultimately displaying brilliant red flowers.
In this article, we are going into the details of all the common Christmas cactus problems, the causes of these problems, and the solutions. Stick around, you’d be amazed how pretty straightforward most of the fixes to these issues are.
Christmas Cactus Problems
Christmas cactus (Schlumbergera truncata), also known as holiday or Thanksgiving cactus, is a tropical plant with origins in the rainforest of South America. In their natural habitat, the plants grow mostly on decaying leaves instead of soil.
They are actually epiphytic succulents that get most of their nourishment (water and nutrients) from the air. In the rainforest, there is usually more than enough moisture in the air to absorb. The roots mainly act as tethers to keep the plants in place.
The consensus is that Christmas cacti are easy to care for and would bloom if the right growing conditions are maintained. Essentially, your Christmas cactus should be free from problems if everything is done right in terms of care and maintenance.
However, problems do pop up even with the best care. Most of these problems are closely linked to improper irrigation, low humidity, long exposure to direct sunlight, and high temperature – all factors linked to the growing conditions.
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Common Christmas Cactus Problems and Solutions
Common thanksgiving cactus problems can be broadly classified into three groups: diseases caused by fungi, problems caused by pests, and problems caused by improper care/maintenance.
Christmas Cactus diseases
Christmas cactus root rot is a fungal disease similar to root rot in plants. It’s primarily caused by soggy soil as a result of over-watering and/or poor drainage.
Christmas cactus suffering from root rot might be hard or even impossible to save. But you can salvage the plant if the problem is noticed early. Typical warning signs include wilting, brownish leaves, and soggy soil.
The roots become dark or reddish-brown in the advanced stage, at which point, you can’t save the plant.
If the problem is discovered early, the smart move is to remove the plant from the pot and remove all infected roots. Then, wash the remaining roots and repot the plant in a new pot with fresh, high-quality potting soil such as cactus soil. You want to make sure the new pot also has drainage holes.
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Also known as basal stem rot, Christmas cactus stem rot is another fungal disease that is hard to treat. It is caused by damp and cold soil due to over-watering.
It is likely your Christmas cactus is suffering from stem rot if the base of the stem is darkish. The dark color would advance upwards towards the leaves as the disease progresses.
Experts recommend that starting afresh is the best fix for this problem. Simply propagate a new plant using healthy leaf cuttings in a different pot and new potting soil.
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Also known as botrytis blight, Christmas cactus gray mold is a fungal disease manifesting on leaves as gray spots. The causative factors are wet leaves and very high humidity that are ideal for fungal growth.
The best solution here is prevention. You want to improve ventilation for better airflow. Also, water carefully, directing the stream of water directly at the soil to prevent water from touching the leaves.
Unfortunately, affected plants can be saved. To avoid the spread of the disease to other plants, the infected plant should be disposed of instantly.
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Christmas cactus viral disease:
The following symptoms are indicative of a viral attack: yellow spots on the leaves, and wilting leaves and stems. Transmitted by thrips, it is commonly known as necrotic spot virus disease.
Moving the infected plant away from other plants and spraying with a good pesticide to kill the thrips is the best way to get ahead of the problem. Then repot the plant in a different pot using fresh potting mix.
But if you want to use the previous pot, wash it with a good disinfectant like bleach and rinse thoroughly with clean water first.
Christmas cactus pests problems
Even with the best care, Christmas cactus are susceptible to pests infestations. These pests can come from larvae embedded in low-quality potting soil, from pets, people, wind, etc.
Some of the common ones include:
At peak infestation, aphids release sticky substances on leaves to inhibit energy production via photosynthesis. This also creates an ideal environment for fungi to grow and cause disease. Christmas cactus aphids also feed on leaves causing leave deformity and yellowing.
There are several ways of getting rid of aphids. You could:
- Spray the leaves with neem oil until they are all gone
- Soak the soil with neem oil to kill the larvae and matured aphids in the roots
- Spray leaves with a pyrethrin-based houseplant insecticide
These bugs can easily infect your Christmas cactus if they are in the vicinity of infected plants. They show up as white, cotton/fluff-like mass on leaves, stems, and roots sucking out plant sap causing yellowing and wilting of leaves, and sometimes root damage.
You can deal with mealybug infestation by:
- Washing off as many as possible in your kitchen sink using a sprayer attachment if possible
- Use Rubbing alcohol to carefully wipe off any remaining mealybugs
- For the stems, neem oil or pyrethrin-based sprays are effective
- For the roots, judiciously soak the soil with neem oil.
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Christmas cactus thrips infestation can occur via other indoor houseplants or the wind when the plant is summered outdoors. The main target is very dry foliage.
If you notice tiny black dots on the foliage and dark brown or yellowish insects, these are likely thrips. The black dots are thrips’ excreta.
The symptoms of thrips attack include foliage deformity as the pests feed on foliage. Leaves can also turn yellow while flower damage is also a real possibility.
You can wash them off under your kitchen sink. For best results, use a sprayer attachment and remove as many as you can. Further treatment can be applied using neem oil on the soil and leaves.
Improper Care/Maintenance: Christmas Cactus problems
Limp and wilting leaves are signs that your Christmas Cactus is not getting adequate sunlight and water.
Move the plant where it can get more indirect sunlight. As for watering, simply adjust the schedule to a plan that works. Basically, you don’t want to give the soil too much water. Less water is always better especially if the humidity is high.
Discoloration can affect leaves and stems with the color changing from green to yellow, red, or even purple.
If the leaves become red or pale, the plants may be getting too much direct sunlight. Except for sunburn, this isn’t a very serious problem. Moving the plant to a shady, but bright location should resolve the problem.
It could be high time you did something about fertilization if the leaves are turning purple or red especially if the plant is already in a shady location. Use a good houseplant fertilizer once every couple of weeks especially when new growths are appearing.
Adjust the frequency to once a month in the blooming period.
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Folks always look forward to their Christmas cactus blooming. Unfortunately, Christmas cactus refusing to bloom is a rather common complaint.
The good news is, the problem comes with an easy fix. It all comes down to replicating the native growing condition as much as possible.
Start by placing the plant in a cool (about 50°F), darkroom at the beginning of fall for between 12 – 14 hours; followed by about 10 hours of indirect sunlight daily. Quit giving it plant food if you were doing so.
If you can’t recreate these conditions in a single room, a creative solution might be required. You can alternate between various locations in different parts of your home that are close to these conditions.
For instance, put it in a dark, cool area for 14 hours. Then move it to a different place with access to at least 10 hours of indirect sunlight. Keep doing this daily until the buds appear.
Only stop this regime when buds begin to grow. Expect the Christmas cactus to put out some colorful flowers a few weeks later.
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Stunted growth in Christmas cactus is usually the result of insufficient light. Expose them to enough light daily and with the right watering, normal growth should resume.
Stunted growth could also be the result of the plant becoming rootbound and can’t take up adequate nutrients. If you notice roots emerging from the drainage holes, the Christmas cactus is definitely rootbound.
The best fix for this is to repot the plant. This can be tricky so you’d have to tread carefully to avoid damaging some of the branches.
When repotting rootbound Christmas cactus, don’t pull the plant up by the leaves. Instead, use a small garden spade to carefully ease the whole plant out without grasping the base.
Then gently remove as much of the old soil as possible from the roots and repot the plant in a pot that is one size larger than the old pot. Ensure that the new point has drainage holes and use similar potting soil.
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Though Christmas cactus is considered rather fussy, it’s actually an easy plant to grow. Most Christmas cactus problems are related to less than stellar care. In essence, all you have to do to ensure a rewarding experience is to closely maintain the optimal growing conditions.
Some of these conditions include watering sparingly, placing them in a bright area away from direct sunlight, and ensuring the humidity is high. The use of high-quality potting soil such as cactus soil in a pot with adequate drainage would ensure that damaging diseases like root and stem rot can be avoided.