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Who would not love to see a blossoming cactus during Christmas? Snow falling outside, fireplace burning, kids cherishing holidays, and a beautiful Schlumberga with red, pink, or violet flowers. It seems like a fairy-tale… In order to enjoy this spectacle, however, you have to keep your Christmas Cactus healthy, because an unhealthy succulent won’t flower, and it may even die. One of the few problems people experience with their Christmas Cactus is stem rot, which manifests in soft stems, or brown lesions on stems just above the soil level.  What causes this, and can you save your Christmas Cactus? We will try to find the answers on the following lines.

Before diving into details, let me clarify one thing: When you see stems of your Christmas Cactus rotting, you can be 100% sure root rot is going on under the surface. Root rot always precedes stem rot, or, said in other words, the rotting progresses through the plant, from the roots to the stems. But the chain of cause of effect does not end (or begin) here either. One step before root rot is always over-watering, which is the real culprit here.


Causes of stem rot in Christmas Cactus and how to prevent it

Over-watering is to blame here, but what does it men for you as a grower? What changes should you make? First of all, make sure you have the right setup for your Christmas cactus. That means:

  • Always plant it in a pot with a drainage hole, so the excess water can drain away, and the roots aren’t rotting in it forever.
  • Use only soil intended for cacti and succulents, because it is a fast draining soil, a soil that does not compact easily, and does not hold moisture.

Now you have the right setup (or at least know how to do it right next time), make sure to observe the following watering schedule: water your Christmas cactus only when the soil is completely dry. I know you hoped to hear something like “water the Schlumberga every two week or four weeks etc”, but the moisture of the soil is really your best guide here. Since how often your cactus needs water depends on many things, including time of the year, climate in your area, age of the cactus, etc.

Saving a Christmas cactus with a stem rot

Plants can often surprise us with their ability to regenerate, to come back even stronger after suffering some heavy blow due to bad weather, or our ignorance of their needs. Stem rot is a serious condition no doubt, as it typically suggests the roots are rotten to a significant extent, and the rot has eventually proceeded to upper parts of the plant. No doubt you should not wear pink glasses here: You may not always save your cactus. But you can at least give it a shot, and see what happens. Follow the steps below to give your cactus the best chance of surviving:

  1. Act immediately after you notice the problem. Do not wait for a miracle.
  2. Gently remove the cactus from the pot, and clean the roots under running water.
  3. Once the roots are clear of soil, you should be able to recognize healthy parts (hopefully some still remained on the plant) from rotten ones. Healthy roots are white and firm, rotten brown or even black and soft.
  4. Cut away all rotten roots. Do not spare a single one, since the rot can easily progress again from one “sick” root to healthy ones.
  5. Once done, repot the plant to a dry, quality succulent soil, and soak it with water (just as you’d do after repotting any succulent). Make sure to use a pot with a drainage hole.
  6. Wait. After the initial watering, you should give your Christmas Cactus some time to recuperate, and grow new roots. Water sparingly in this period, and only when the soil is dry.

Following these steps, only two things can happen. Your Christmas Cactus will either recuperate, growing new roots, or it will die. If it does die, at least you know you gave it a shot, and won’t repeat the same mistakes again.


Prevention is always the best cure for stem rot and other problems of your Christmas Cactus

In my opinion, we humans have many things in common with plants. If you want to enjoy the beauty of your succulents, such as a flowering of Schlumberga in December, the key is to do things right from the start, avoiding any problems. Stem rot is extremely rare in Christmas Cactus in wild nature. The succulent isn’t prone to such problems. It is just we, growers, who create the problem with bad care. And then we often try in vain to save a dying succulent.

Doing things right from the start, you can avoid any problems. Plant your cacti in a fast draining soil, and in some good pot with a drainage hole. Water sparingly, and only when the soil is dry. Remember that it is close to impossible to under-water a Christmas cactus. But it is very easy to over-water it, and a series of undesirable events will follow–root rot, stem rot, and eventually the death of your plant. We should not forget that most succulents thrive in neglect. Caring about them too much (watering, fertilizing, etc) can do more harm than good here. Hope it helps, and good luck with your plants!

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