The Christmas cactus is a highly decorative, resilient houseplant that looks its best during the holiday season. Consequently, it is a popular seasonal gift worldwide.
Besides the exciting looks of its segmented, droopy “body,” this succulent will reward you with bright, colorful blooms if you provide it with just a bit of adequate care.
However, although it’s undoubtedly one hardy houseplant, the Christmas cactus is still mortal – and it can succumb to various ailments.
A typical signal that something is wrong with your Christmas cactus is when its leaves go wrinkly and limp. No doubt – your Christmas cactus going limp is a cause for alarm, or rather – a call to action.
This article aims to reply to a common question: “Why are the leaves on my Christmas cactus limp – and what can I do about it?”
Why Are the Leaves on My Christmas Cactus Limp
Wilted or limp leaves on a Christmas cactus can be caused by a few different things including overwatering, not enough watering, and too much direct sun. Their preferred conditions are partial shade, sufficient humidity, warmth, and moderate watering.
If the limp leaves are caused by underwatering, give your plant a drink as soon as possible. Christmas cactus plants are susceptible to root rot (often caused by overwatering), which is a major cause of limp leaves.
Read on for answers to all your Christmas cactus questions, including how to fix common issue resulting in limp leaves and lack of flowers.
What Is a Christmas Cactus?
Christmas cactus is not actually a true cactus but an epiphytic succulent from the genus Schlumbergera. It originates not from the desert but from the tropical rainforest of Brazil, where these plants grow on mature, tall trees.
Growing in that clingy manner ensures that the succulent will get enough sunlight and humidity in a densely-packed, competitive environment (objection: has anyone asked that tree if it needs more personal space? Poor thing).
The biology of Schlumbergera cacti means two things:
- It doesn’t require arid conditions and full sunlight – it’s quite the opposite. The preferred conditions are partial shade, sufficient humidity, warmth (no winter weather, please!), and moderate watering.
- The limited amount of everything – space, soil, nutrients, water – that an epiphytic plant gets while growing on a tree means that your Christmas or other holiday cactus will have modest demands; however you have to pay special attention to its rootzone – the type of substrate and the frequency of watering being the key to good care.
Christmas cactus is an easy-care, flowering plant that can live for 100 years, being passed on from generation to generation. With each passing year, a Christmas cactus gets bigger and more impressive.
I’ve just said “Christmas, or other holiday cactus,” so here’s an explanation.
The Schlumbergera succulents found in the trade are generally known as holiday cacti and consist of three main species:
- Thanksgiving cactus (Schlumbergera truncata) (pointy leaves),
- Christmas cactus (Schlumbergera x buckleyi) (rounded leaves), and
- Easter cactus (S. gaertneri) (rounded leaves).
It is important to note that what is sold as a “Christmas cactus” can easily be a Thanksgiving cactus. The differences between the two species are slight, but the care is basically the same – and the same goes for troubleshooting.
The Thanksgiving cactus blooms from November through February, so no worries – it covers the Christmas season as well.
On the other hand, a true Christmas cactus will usually bloom from early to late winter.
So, you got your Christmas cactus, likely in bloom; everything was swell and colorful.
Until you suddenly noticed that the entire plant went limp, likely after losing its flowers.
What just happened?
Reasons Why Your Christmas Cactus Is Limp
When your cactus first goes pale, then wrinkly, and at last limp, it means that something is wrong with its water supply.
The cause (or dare I say, the root) of the problem can vary.
Reason 1: Not Enough Watering
First – and the most obvious – you may have forgotten to water your cactus, or you do so too infrequently or too scarcely.
As I said before, Christmas cactus and its cousins aren’t true cacti but tropical epiphytic succulents, meaning they need more water than an average cactus – but not a lot either.
See our FAQs below for how often you should water a Christmas cactus.
Reason 2: Too Much Watering
The second reason you get a limp Christmas cactus is, unfortunately, both a more common one and a more sinister one.
As an epiphyte, a holiday cactus has a shallow and relatively delicate root system that has not evolved to handle a soggy substrate. And, as with any succulent, the stems are sensitive to excessive watering.
All of that means that prolonged overwatering can easily cause root rot and stem rot. Once the plant starts rotting, it is tough to stop and reverse the process – but there’s hope!
The withering and limpness occurs due to the plant’s physical inability to take in water – because its roots and/or stem are being damaged by decay.
Christmas Cactus FAQ
See our FAQ below for advice on how you can tell whether your Christmas cactus is overwatered, and how to fix it.
The golden rule is that you should have your Christmas cactus in a well-draining substrate and pot, water it generously, and then let it become about 1/3 dry before watering again (check the depth with your finger).
You can go even drier if you are afraid of root rot, but you risk stressing your plant. The first sign of drought stress that happens before the limp phase is that the younger segments will become paler and a bit transparent. If this happens – water immediately.
Also, it is essential to water well while the plant is flowering – Christmas cacti will start dropping their blooms as soon as they feel drought stress.
Unfortunately, as with many succulents, you probably won’t be able to tell that you’re overwatering your Christmas cactus by the look of the plant itself until some damage is done.
A better strategy is to monitor how the soil in the pot looks and feels. Is it soggy? Does it drain well? Are there any fungus gnats flying around?
If any of the answers to these questions are positive, you need to decrease the watering frequency or change the substrate. Substrates that contain a decent proportion of peat work well for Christmas cacti. A well-draining bottom and a pot that is not too deep are absolute musts.
Fixing a limp cactus includes identifying the cause of the limpness and then addressing it. If your cactus is limp from too little watering, increase the hydration ASAP. Optimal watering schedule every 1-3 weeks, depending on how fast the soil dries. Nothing beats that finger soil check.
Note that Christmas cactus can tolerate some drought, but it will cause growth issues in the long run.
Also, dry air in overly heated apartments can make the cactus wither and look unhealthy. Turning down the heat or buying a humidifier will do wonders to fix the dry air problem (and your respiratory systems may benefit from it!).
If your cactus went limp from overwatering, that’s a potentially bigger issue. Continue reading to see what you can do about it.
If you notice that your Christmas cactus is limp and you’ve been watering it generously without checking the substrate, you may have accidentally been overwatering it.
1. What you need to do first is to check the root zone and the stem base for any black or brown spots or rotting areas. If there are none – it means that the process has only just begun.
2. Carefully take the cactus and the soil out of the pot and remove the dirt. Observe the roots and remove any that look soft and soggy.
3. Rinse the roots with running water (room temperature – not cold, not warm).
4. Let the plant dry for several hours or through the night. I would leave a slightly dampened towel over the root to avoid completely drying out the remaining healthy roots.
5. Some gardeners suggest handling any stem rot by removing it with a sterile knife. I’ve never had success in saving my rotting succulents this way, but perhaps it has worked for some people indeed. If you do this, you need to make sure these “operated” areas remain clean and dry until they dry out completely.
6. Repot the plant into a new, well-draining potting mix that is only slightly moist. Wait about two days before watering the plant again regularly.
All holiday cacti need a dormancy period to bloom. Dormancy simply means – stop watering them and let ‘em be for about a month. For Christmas and Thanksgiving cacti, the golden standard is to let them rest throughout August. I usually start the dormancy period around August 5th, following a regular, generous watering, and end it on September 5th.
When people do everything right in terms of lighting and temperature and the holiday cactus still won’t bloom – the absence of the dormancy period is usually the problem.
Death from overwatering in Christmas cacti is one of the most common issues – but luckily, these plants root very easily. If you suspect your cactus is rotting, take several healthy-looking segments as cuttings and get them to root – either by sticking them into a moist substrate or by putting them in water. You can find comparisons of both methods in the video below or in our post “How to Propagate a Christmas Cactus the Easy Way!“
Bonus: What Triggers a Christmas Cactus to Bloom
Most people buy their Christmas cactus for their showy blooms. However, sometimes they fail to get the plant to flower the next year and become disappointed.
The issue is easy to solve – you just need to know how to trigger Christmas cactus flowering.
The trigger for the Christmas cactus blooming season is the autumn short days and prolonged nights in the first place, and cooler temperatures as a second condition.
Here’s how to get your Christmas cactus to flower!
1. Lower the Lights
To begin the blooming process, this succulent requires 8-10 hours of daylight and at least 14 hours of darkness or very low light for about six weeks.
If you live in mid-to-northern latitudes and keep your cactus on a windowsill so it relies on the outside light, the natural decrease in daylight will do it.
However, if you keep it in a room with bright lights turned on at night, you will need to either move your plant to an area where it can pick up on the natural light cycle or physically cover it with a box or a similar non-transparent object.
An ideal temperature for flower buds to form, bloom, and last long is between 10 and 15°C (50-60°F). That can sometimes be tricky to achieve in a well-heated apartment in combination with cold outside weather.
My Thanksgiving cacti did best in years with mild autumns and winters, when it could remain outside for as long as possible.
However, in colder years, the need to take it into an evenly-heated home would result in it shedding its blooms faster than desired.
You can avoid the problem if you have a cool and light room in your home – a bathroom, storage room, a hallway, or the best – a glazed balcony.
To Sum It Up
By following a few basic rules – moderate watering, well-draining soil, dormancy, and proper daylight cycles to induce blooming – your Christmas cactus will be a joy of every holiday season – for many, many years.
The resilience of this attractive epiphyte means that common mistakes can be forgiven if they are not repeated. That means that you have a good chance of saving your Christmas cactus, even if it has become limp.
Besides being hardy, this is a very long-lived plant known to live on for decades, all while producing numerous offspring through cuttings. Maybe this holiday season is a perfect moment for a Christmas cacti invasion!
Do you have any questions about holiday cacti, or a valuable experience to share? Make yourself heard in the comments – we’d love to include you in the conversation.