Why is My Christmas Cactus Wilting?

Why is my Christmas cactus wilting

Is your Christmas cactus wilting despite good watering practices?

I, too, was perplexed by this very problem when I started growing Christmas cactus, and after doing some research, I discovered I was underwatering my plant.

I now work at a garden center and frequently hear about this problem, which I think is because people assume the Christmas cactus is like a desert cactus and needs watering very infrequently when, in actual fact, it is native to a much more rainy part of the world and therefore needs a careful balance of watering to prevent it from wilting!

So, I did the research and consulted some of my colleagues at the garden center to learn all the tips and secrets for looking after Christmas cacti and how to pinpoint the reason for their wilting.

In this post, I’ll share with you all the tricks I learned in a step-by-step guide so you can make the necessary adjustments and save your wilting plant as I did with mine!

Here is my 2 sentence explanation that gets straight to the point…

A Christmas Cactus wilts because it has been underwatered, watered too lightly, or has the humidity too low. Christmas cacti are native to rainforests and require more moisture than desert cacti to prevent wilting.

I know this is confusing, but it should be noted that wilting is also a symptom of too much moisture around the roots, which causes root rot and wilt as a sign of stress.

Before you read the article, I should probably mention that when a Christmas cactus is mature, its leaves (which are actually modified stems) cascade down quite elegantly, which may be misinterpreted as wilting!

Keep reading to learn the best practices for preventing a wilting and how to revive a wilted Christmas cactus…

Under Watering Causes Wilting

As I mentioned Christmas cacti are not desert plants but in fact they are native to tropical Brazilian rainforests where they thrive in humid conditions in partial shade with consistent rainfall.

This is in stark contrast to most cacti species, which thrive in desert environments with little rainfall, often in direct sun, high temperatures, and low humidity.

Therefore, from my experience, the association of the word ‘cactus’ is often the reason why the Christmas cactus is commonly underwatered in the home, causing it to wilt when it really requires more moisture.

For that reason, to grow Christmas cactus in the home successfully and to prevent wilting or reviving a wilted plant, we need to recreate some of the moisture conditions of its native environment with a more regular watering cycle than typical cactus species.

My solution

When I revived my wilted Christmas cactus (caused by underwatering), I increased the frequency of watering so that the soil stayed consistently moist (but not damp).

Pro Tip: My colleagues at the garden center taught me that the top inch of soil should just be drying out to the touch before watering to achieve the optimal moisture balance, meeting the cactus’ requirements without overwatering.

For my Christmas cactus in my home I water once per week with a really generous soak. I did soome testing and found out it takes a week for the first inch of soil to dry.

However, I must stress that there are several variables to be aware of when it comes to watering, such as how hot your climate is and how big the pot is. etc. Therefore, I would use my watering once-a-week advice as guidance, and ideally, you need to experiment to see how fast the first inch of soil dries in your home and water accordingly.

(To learn how to water Christmas cactus properly in different environments and for all the best practices to avoid drought and overwatering, read my article on how to water Christmas cactus).

To help it recover, I moved my cactus out of the way of air conditioning or draughts while it was wilting, just so it didn’t have to contend with low humidity as well.

The correct watering frequency should be applied in conjunction with good well draining potting soil and a suitable humid micro-climate to help restore the cactus from its wilted appearance.

When I started watering my Christmas cactus with the frequency I described, my plant recovered in as little as 2 or 3 watering cycles, and it looks much better for it!

Watering Too Lightly

Whilst watering frequency is important for avoiding drought stress and subsequent wilting, it is also important to water with the right quantity.

We need to think of big soaks and not small sips!

I always water Christmas cactus with a generous soak so that water visibly trickles from the base after watering.

This ensures that the water has infiltrated the soil and reached the roots so they can uptake the moisture they require to keep the plant healthy.

Watering too lightly only moistens the top inch or so of the soil and does not drain down to the roots where the water is actually needed.

This causes drought stress, similar to underwatering, and wilts the leaves and structure of the Christmas cactus overall.

My Method of Watering…

I suspected that the surface of the soil of my Christmas cacti was repelling water off the surface, and the water was trickling down the inside of the pot and out of the drainage holes in the base rather than infiltrating the soil and reaching the roots.

My suspicions were confirmed when I picked up my Christmas cactus pot straight after watering when it should have felt noticeably heavier due to the potting medium soaking up all the water when, in fact, it felt light.

Therefore, I decided to experiment with my watering technique to prevent this from happening again. What I found works is to water from the top as I was doing but allow the tray I placed underneath my pot to fill with water.

I noticed that after half an hour, all the water from the tray had been drawn up by the soil, and the potting soil was now evenly moist and much heavier!

This helped to alleviate the stress from underwatering, and my Christmas cactus now thrives!

Low Humidity Causes Wilting

As we discussed, our Christmas cactus is adapted to growing in rainforest conditions; it prefers some additional humidity when growing indoors.

The lower the humidity, the more moisture is sapped from the leaves and the quicker the soil dries out, which causes the Christmas cactus to wilt due to drought stress.

Several factors can exacerbate low humidity indoors, such as:

  • Air currents from air con or forced air.
  • Sources of heat such as radiators.
  • Draught-prone areas of the house, perhaps due to open windows.

I used to live in a small apartment, and I had to use heating in the winter and air-con in the Summer, both of which upset my Christmas cactus and caused it to wilt.

I learned that while you may be watering the Christmas cactus responsibly, too much airflow can sap moisture from the plant quicker than the roots can draw it up, creating a moisture deficit and causing it to wilt.

My solution

I was advised to Mist my Christmas cactus regularly to create a humid micro-climate. The resulting moist atmosphere helps to replicate the humid conditions of Brazil’s rainforest to which the cactus is accustomed.

S the traditional advice that I have read elsewhere is that the lower the natural humidity of your climate, the more frequently you should mist the plant.

This can work, but to be honest, I found that to really counteract dry air in arid climates, the best solution that I implemented was to group my houseplants that love humidity close together and use a humidifier to create the conditions that they love.

When I lived in the arid climate of Southern California, I found misting was not necessarily enough to prevent my Christmas cacti from wilting, and if you forgot to mist, then your plant would suffer the consequences!

I’ve found it is also essential that you locate the Christmas cactus in a room with a relatively still atmosphere rather than in the direct path of airflow to prevent it from drying out and wilting.

Now that I live in a more temperate climate, I’ve found that my Christmas cactus can adapt well to growing in more humid rooms such as bathrooms or kitchens, which can be problematic for some plants without the need to keep them misted.

(Low humidity can also cause Christmas cactus to drop buds, read my article to learn more).

Too Much Sun Causes Leaves to turn Red and Wilting

Our Christmas cactus is an epiphytic plant that commonly grows on trees and is often under the shade of a tree canopy rather than in full sun.

In your home, the cactus should be in bright indirect sunlight and not full sun.

This is another common mistake I see, which I think is, again, a result of people misinterpreting the word cactus and thinking their Christmas cactus needs to be in a simulated desert.

Full sun is too intense and often too hot for Christmas cactus plants which causes it to turn red (to cope with sunburn) and dries out the plant and soil too quickly causing it to wilt.

What you need to do is to place your Christmas Cactus in an area of bright indirect light to avoid excessive drying and drought stress and to promote blooms.

Important Tip: A great way that I’ve achieved this is to either place my Christmas cactus in my bathroom, as it has frosted glass that diffuses the light, or to use a sheer curtain, which has the same effect.

Too Much Moisture Around the Roots

Okay, so I know we’ve just talked at length about how dry soil conditions are the reason why your Christmas cactus is wilting, but, rather confusingly, damp soil is another potential cause of your Christmas Cactus wilting due to water stress and potentially root rot.

While Christmas cacti prefer more moisture than most cacti, too much moisture around the roots causes Christmas cacti to wilt as a sign of stress and also prevents flowering.

(There are several reasons why your Christmas cactus may not be blooming, so read my article for the solutions).

Too much moisture around the roots can be because of:

  • Overwatering (typically watering once per week is sufficient).
  • Slow-draining soils (Christmas cactus requires well-draining porous soils for the optimal balance of moisture).
  • Pots without drainage holes in the base (pots with drainage holes prevent excess water escaping).
  • The use of saucers and trays underneath pots (causing water to pool around the roots).
  • Decorative outer pots without drainage holes (traps excess water after watering causing root rot).
Decorative pots prevents excess water from draining.
Decorative outer pots cause water to pool around the roots.

So earlier in the article, I said that I let my Christmas cactus sit in a tray with water, but crucially, I do this for half an hour and then discard any excess water after this period to avoid problems associated with overwatering and root rot.

My solution

Check to see if the soil feels damp or saturated rather than evenly moist at the surface and underneath the pot through the drainage hole.

  • Scale back the watering to about once per week. Watering once per week with a good soak is a far better method of watering for the development of healthy roots, rather than watering little and often.
  • Ensure that the cactus is planted in well-draining soil. For Christmas Cacti, my advice is to use 1 part horticultural sand or grit and 3 parts potting soil, which creates a porous soil with good drainage yet retains enough moisture to meet the requirements of the plant. I learned this from some specialist growers at the garden center where I work. This is the potting mix that is used at scale for commercial Christmas cactus cultivation.
  • Transfer the cactus to a pot with drainage holes. This allows excess water to escape rather than pool around the roots and cause root rot. Check to see if any compacted soil or roots could be slowing down drainage.
  • Ensure that all saucers, trays, and decorative pots are emptied regularly of excess water. Christmas cactus should not be in standing water indefinitely, or it will wilt.

Once you have implemented a more appropriate watering regime and created conditions that allow the soil to drain freely, the Christmas cactus has a chance to recover.

But if I am being honest with you, if the roots have been in saturated soil for a long time, then they can be difficult to revive. In this case, I recommend that you propagate your Christmas cactus from any remaining healthy growth.

Too Much Fertilizer

Another consideration is that applying too much fertilizer or too high a concentration of the cactus can prevent flowering and cause the growth to droop as a result of excess Nitrogen, but to be honest, I think this is unlikely if you have been following the manufacturer’s instructions.

Scale back the use of fertilizer to once a month with a well-balanced liquid houseplant fertilizer to support flowering yet prevent wilting.

If you consistently care for your Christmas cactus, it should recover eventually, but in my experience, it can take a year for some houseplants to recover if they have had too much nitrogen from fertilizer, so it takes some deferred gratification.

(Read my article, how to revive a dying Christmas cactus).

Do you have any insights into caring for Christmas cactus? Or any other tips and tricks? Please leave a comment below; I’d love to hear from you!!!

Key Takeaways:

  • Wilting Christmas cacti is caused by a lack of water, which can be caused by not watering often enough, watering too lightly, or low humidity. Christmas cacti are rainforest plants and require higher levels of moisture than most cacti to prevent wilting.
  • Christmas cactus requires higher humidity to prevent wilting. Mist the cactus regularly to create a humid micro-climate that replicates the humidity of its rainforest environment.
  • Christmas cacti grow in the shade of the canopy, so too much sun can cause them to dry out quickly and wilt.
  • Too much moisture around the roots caused by overwatering, slow-draining soils, and pots without drainage holes can prevent excess water from escaping, causing the cactus to wilt as a sign of stress. Ensure Christmas cactus is planted in well-draining soil.

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