The Q&A Archives: Sick Christmas Cactus

Question: HELP! I received my Christmas Cactus as a token gift from a new neighbor in a very small 2" pot about 5 years ago. It has grown and I have been very proud of it as it has bloomed and reproduced at a remarkable rate. I had transplanted it to a 4" clay pot, in which it did very well, but recently, right after it bloomed extremely well, it is wilting very badly. I transplanted it to a 6" pot trying to revive it and maybe have given it too much water, as it seems so limp and lifeless. All the blooms are spent and it just seems to be dying. It is in a south bay window with other plants, but is very sick! What can I do to bring it back to it's healthy plump self?

Answer: Things don't sound too hopeful for your plant. If the potting soil doesn't drain quickly, or if you've been supplying too much water, your plant may be suffering from crown or root rot. If this is the case, it may be a goner.
Unpot the plant and inspect the roots. Healthy roots are creamy white inside (break a few to check the color). If roots are rusty colored, or you detect a foul, stagnant odor in the soil, root rot or crown rot is present. You may be able to cut away the affected portions of the plant and repot a healthy section with healthy roots into fresh potting soil in a container which drains well.

Here are some basic hints on how to care for your plant: Christmas Cactus is a tropical plant that requires a highly organic soil mixture and lots of moisture. The plant likes bright light and average household temperatures. You can take your Christmas Cactus outdoors during the summer and fertilize it monthly with a diluted houseplant food. Then bring it back indoors at the end of September and provide total darkness for 16 hours each day so the plant can set flower buds. The easiest way to accomplish this is to place it in a bright room for 8 hours and then either put a box over it, or put it in a closet for 16 hours. It needs absolute darkness; even a short burst of daylight will retard the formation of flower buds. During this bud forcing period, keep the temperature between 60F and 70F, and do not fertilize the plant. In early December your Christmas Cactus can be brought into ordinary light and will bloom in a few weeks.

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