Do you want to know why your Christmas cactus is wilting?
In most cases, a Christmas cactus wilts when it receives the incorrect amount of water; either from underwatering or overwatering. It can also be caused by other issues such as root rot or the plant being root bound in its pot.
I’ve owned a Christmas cactus for over 4 years and have dealt with pretty much every problem with this popular houseplant. Let’s waste no time and see how to fix the most common issues relating to a wilting Christmas cactus.
The Three Types Of Holiday Cacti
Christmas cacti are one of three types of holiday cacti, which are Christmas cacti, Thanksgiving cacti and Easter Cacti.
The main difference between these is the time that they bloom (hence the names), and also some key differences in the leaf shapes. Thanksgiving cacti are often confused for Christmas cacti, and this is a result of plant sellers labelling both types as Christmas cacti.
Luckily for us, all three have the same type of care – so if they’re wilting they can be nursed back to health with the same procedures. For simplicities sake I’ll stick to the name Christmas cactus in this article, given the care is the same.
6 Reasons Why Your Christmas Cactus Is Wilting
Over years of owning a Christmas cactus, I’ve noticed 6 key reasons why it wilts.
These are laid out below, along with the most practical solutions for each problem so you can get your plant looking happy and healthy in no time.
Overwatering is a big issue for most houseplants, and Christmas cacti are no different.
Overwatering a Christmas cactus will saturate the soil with moisture. This is a problem because Christmas cacti are epiphytes, like other popular houseplants such as the Anthurium, which means their roots are great at absorbing moisture from damp organic matter as well as from the air.
If the soil is completely saturated with water the roots will be unable to process nutrients properly, which can cause the plant to wilt. Overwatering can also attract pests and cause other issues such as root rot, which I’ll explore in more detail in reason #3.
Overwatering can be very easily avoided.
Before you water your Christmas cactus, check the top inch or two of the soil with your hands. If it is dry, then go ahead and water it – if it’s still moist, then leave the plant alone.
I also recommend getting the right soil mix that promotes draining, as well as ensuring that your pot has drainage holes. I’ll explore this in more detail in reason #6 if you want to skip straight ahead.
Christmas cacti are also vulnerable to underwatering, particularly due to the misconception that they are Cacti, when in fact they’re not true cacti and are instead succulents.
This sounds confusing at first, but essentially Christmas cacti should not be treated with the care that you would assume for a cactus (minimal watering, lots of sunlight, dry air, etc).
It’s a simple mistake to make, but if you don’t water your Christmas cactus enough the soil will dry out quickly which can make the leaves wilt.
(Christmas cactus leaves are actually cladodes, which are leafless photosynthetic units, but for the purpose of this article, I’ll refer to them as leaves as they have a similar function and appearance.)
Similarly to overwatering, check the soil often and water when it is dry. Underwatering is generally better than overwatering, but in an ideal world, you’ll want to avoid both.
Root bound is a term used to describe when a plant’s roots – in this case, a Christmas cactus- run out of space in the container that they’re in.
Christmas cacti can actually survive relatively well if they are root-bound, but this doesn’t last forever. Eventually, the quality of the soil will deteriorate as the roots take up most of the space, leaving a shortage of nutrients for the plant which can cause wilting.
If you notice roots growing out of the drainage holes or from the surface of the soil it’s likely that your Christmas cactus will be root-bound. You can also remove the plant from the container and gently remove the soil to see if it is root-bound (most of the volume will be taken over by lots of roots that are intertwined and possibly stiff).
Fixing a root-bound Christmas cactus is fairly easy.
Start by removing the plant from its container and gently remove any excess soil around the roots so that they are visible. Use your hands to gently pull on the roots to release them from the bundle.
If the roots are tightly wound you may need to use a knife to cut into the root ball. The aim here is to release as many roots as possible so that they are able to grow into new soil.
Once you’ve freed up as many roots as possible simply repot the plant into a new container that has 1-2 inches of extra space on either side to allow the newly freed roots to grow into.
Fill this space with soil and water the plant – that’s all there is to it.
4. Disease(s) And Pests
Christmas cacti are prone to diseases such as root rot if the soil is overwatered, and are also at risk to pests that are attracted to moist conditions such as aphids and fungus gnats.
Root rot directly affects the roots and causes them to rot, which means they become unable to transport nutrients from the soil into the plant. The result of this is that the plant will wilt at first, and can die if the root rot isn’t treated.
A Christmas cactus will also wilt if it becomes infested with pests. Some pests attack the roots, while others target the leaves, but in either case, the health of the plant will deteriorate quickly with one of the first symptoms being wilted leaves.
Avoid overwatering as before, as this is the root of most diseases and pest-related problems that can occur to a Christmas cactus.
If your plant does get infected with a disease or suffers from pests, follow the appropriate steps to deal with the issue. Dealing with root rot, for example, involves removing the plant from its pot and trimming any infected roots.
After this, the roots can be treated with a fungicide and then the plant is repotted with fresh soil. Most pest problems can be dealt with by washing off any visible pests and then treating the entire plant with an insecticide.
5. Too Much Direct Sunlight
Again, a misconception about Christmas cacti is that they would prefer lots of bright and direct sunlight, but this is not the case.
They’re actually native to jungles in Southern America and enjoy sunlight similar to that in the wild. Underneath the jungle canopy, they enjoy lots of bright, indirect sunlight similar to other plants native to these areas like the anthurium or calathea.
If you place your Christmas cactus in an area with lots of bright direct sunlight the leaves can become scorched and wilt.
Choose an area with bright, indirect sunlight.
I like to keep my Christmas cactus on top of a bookshelf next to a large, north-facing window which provides the perfect level of sunlight without scorching the leaves.
6. Poor Drainage
Drainage is crucial for Christmas cacti, as it prevents water from building up in the soil which causes infections, pests and general overwatering issues.
All of these issues, as previously mentioned, can cause a Christmas cactus to wilt, which is why ensuring proper drainage is crucial for the health of your plant.
Ensure good drainage by using the right type of soil and utilizing drainage holes in the pot.
- Drainage holes – Drainage holes in the pot allow for excess water to flow outside of the pot and into the holding container. This prevents excessive water build-up, which will make it more difficult to overwater the plant.
- Soil – Most succulent soil mixes are ideal for Christmas cacti as they’re well-draining whilst holding moisture well. This will also help to prevent overwatering, and allow the roots to thrive due to their epiphytic nature.