Wilting Christmas Cactus

wiliting christmas cactusQuestion: This image shows a Christmas cactus that was given to my husband when he was born 66 years ago. The wilting stems will eventually die. Each year I lose more of it. What can I do to take care of this Christmas cactus better?

Answer: First let’s say that you must be doing something right, since you are getting this Christmas cactus to bloom, and continues to live!

When thinking about the preferences of the Christmas cactus, it may be helpful to understand that these plants aren’t “cactus” in the typical sense of the word. They aren’t native to dry, sunny, sandy deserts. Instead, they are found growing naturally in jungles, where they grow not in the ground but on top of tree branches.

Here are the basic “likes” of a Christmas cactus growing as a houseplant:

  • Airy, fast-draining soil. Add coarse sand or perlite to regular houseplant potting mix to improve drainage. Repot the plant each year after flowering ceases. This will ensure the soil doesn’t become compacted around the roots and suffocate them. Remember, in nature this plant’s roots grow in debris that accumulates in the crooks of tree branches—very fast to drain and airy.
  • Bright light, with no direct sun.
  • Soil that’s consistently moist when the plant is growing or flowering, with a post-flowering dry period. For 8 weeks after the plant finishes blooming, keep it in a cooler location and water it only sparingly, to allow it to rest.
  • Humid air—increase humidity by misting the air around the plant and/or siting the pot on or near a dish of damp aquarium gravel.

Limpness can be a sign or root rot, which can set in if the soil remains soggy and wet. However I strongly suspect that your plant may simply be showing signs of its great age. Your best bet may be to propagate a new plant from it. Just clip off a healthy-looking stem and insert it in moist potting mix. In a few weeks, it will likely have formed roots. (Tug on it to see.) This new plant will be more vigorous in growth, and you’ll feel good having it on hand in case the older plant continues to fade.

Ron Smith, horticulturist with the North Dakota extension service, has a helpful web page with answers to many cactus questions.
Show off a humidity-loving houseplant with a glass cloche or terrarium.

Get a guide to common houseplant tasks for under $5.

Here’s a great reference: The Complete Guide to Cacti and Succulents.

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11 thoughts on “Wilting Christmas Cactus

    • I agree with Steve N. Yes you can take cuttings of the original, but don’t toss it. It has decades of living ahead. Instead, try relocating it either less light or if it’s too shaded, a little more light. Hold back on the water. I find that misting has helped all my indoor plants, but not african violets, as the drops of water can burn the leaves. Try everything you can with your plants to make them happy before you give up!

  1. I also have a very old Christmas Cactus, and at one point, thought I was losing it too. I am pretty sure, it was because I was watering it, too often, and as a result, it’s roots were rotting. I repotted and it’s thrived ever since. Also, plants bloom when they are stressed, not just when they are doing well. I worked for a company that dealt with tropical plants, and many times, when these plants were on their way out, they would bloom.

    • Hi Deb — What an interesting point; thank you for sharing it. I thought that plants generally cease to bloom when they’re stressed, but it makes sense that sometimes they might actually flower out of stress — could it be a “survival” thing: if they flower and set seed, it would ensure the survival of the species even if the plant itself dies. Interesting food for thought this morning!


  2. Another thing to consider might be to re-pot in a larger and different shaped vessel. For a plant like this I would use something that is rectangular and shaped like one of the window box shaped pots. Re pot with new sand mix soil after cleaning the roots of any that look diseased and then lay the whole top part of the plant on top of the soil. Don’t ever over water it and my guess is that within a month you will have most of the plant sending down little roots from most of the formerly wilted greenery. After a year you will have an enormous plant that will have multiple root systems so any time your plant has an admirer you can simply cut out part of it to hand over to it’s new owner.
    I use this method with Jades and Aloe too and it works beautifully.

    • Interesting suggestion about propagating this plant – I’ll try it next time. I had a very large “wilting” Xmas cactus, and took multiple cuttings from it the traditional way. I now have three healthy large pots full. Check out my book “Houseplants are Houseguests”, Wheatmark.com/bookstore, for tips on caring for these plants and others!

  3. An excellent suggestion. You might also want to consider pre potting the entire plant as well. That way should be able to see signs of deterioration in the roots and clean those out, while still being able to save most of your plant. It’s certainly worth a try.

  4. Pingback: Wilting Christmas Cactus | Horticulture – The Art & Science of … | Christmas-Bargains.biz

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