Why is my Christmas Cactus wilting? Causes & Remedies

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Schlumbergera, commonly knows as a Christmas Cactus, is one of the most popular succulents in both North America and Europe. The reason is simple: In the northern hemisphere, this cactus flowers around Christmas (hence the familiar name it got). It isn’t the easiest succulent to grow, but it isn’t that hard growing it either. The only two problems people commonly experience with Christmas cactus are white spots on the leaves, and the leaves of the cactus wilting. In this post we will look at the second of the two problems, the wilting cactus.

Before we dive into details, let me cite three main reasons why your Christmas Cactus may be wilting: Over-watering and subsequent root rot, under-watering, and excessive fertilization. In my experience, one of the three is responsible for 99% of all cases of Christmas Cactus wilting. In rare cases the cactus may wilt simply because it is too old. This isn’t very likely though, unless you inherited your cactus from the mother of your grandmother, since this cactus can easily live for a hundred years.


Over-watering as the most common reason of wilting Christmas Cactus

Some people find this contradictory. At the end of the day, don’t most plants wilt when they actually lack water? Well, most plants do, but not succulents and cacti. At least not in the majority of cases, since it is not easy to under-water these plants. It is super easy to over-water them though. What happens in this case is that the roots of the cactus will rot. If it goes on for some time, the roots aren’t able to transfer water and nutrients to the body of the Christmas cactus anymore. It will wilt and eventually die.

You can identify this problem in several ways. First of them is observation. Check the moisture of the soil regularly. If it seems too wet, and virtually never dries, the chances are high you’ve been over-watering your Christmas Cactus for a while, and the roots are either partially or completely rotten. You can also observe the roots directly, digging a hole in the pot, and picking some roots. If they are soft and brown (clean them from soil with a wet cloth to see the color), they are rotten.

Addressing this problem is quite hard, at least if you want to save your Christmas Cactus. Because if the root rot progressed to a certain extent, things cannot be reversed anymore, and you have to say goodbye to your plant. If you spot the problem early, however, you can try removing all rotten roots and repotting the plant to a new pot. Make sure to use a pot with a drainage hole, and soil that is fitting for succulents. Also make sure you do not water it that often anymore. Most Christmas cacti will do with a watering schedule of once in three weeks.

A flowering Christmas Cactus, a spectacle every avid succulent grower enjoys to see in winter.

Under-watering as the second most common reason for a wilting Christmas Cactus

Let me emphasize once again that it isn’t easy to under-water a Christmas cactus. These plants have water stored in their leaves, and can sustain long periods of drought. In special cases though, for example during an especially hot period or when you left for a six weeks long hiatus abroad and forgot to ask your neighbor to water your plants, it can happen that your cactus suddenly lacks water. Two things can help you identify under-watering as a reason for a wilting Christmas Cactus: The soil is very dry and you cannot remember when you watered the plant the last time. You just know it was long time ago :).

Luckily for you, it is much easier saving an under-watered Christmas Cactus than it is saving an over-watered one with rotten roots. As soon as you identify the problem, just soak it completely with water. Once only though. You should stick to the original watering schedule since then. In fact, if your Christmas Cactus is wilting due to lack of water, the leaves should return to normal condition within 48 hours of you finally watering the thirsty plant. If they do not return back to normal, you know that under-watering wasn’t the problem you faced here.


Over-fertilization as the no. 3 reason why your Christmas Cactus may wilt

It is a myth that cacti need fertilizers to thrive and blossom. These beautiful plants are native to semi-desert and desert areas. You would hardly find a soil rich in nutrients in such areas. Christmas Cactus is just fine with getting some sun, rain water, and perhaps some nutrients from the leaves that fall and you leave them in the pot to decompose slowly and enrich the soil. Many people do not get this though, or fall for the marketing tricks of producers of fertilizers, who claim that every plant needs fertilization, trying to maximize their profits.

In truth you can cause more harm than good for your Christmas cactus with fertilizers, let alone with an excessive use of them. If you overdo it, or use a particularly strong fertilizer, it may burn the roots of the plant completely. Similarly to rotten roots, burned roots cannot transfer water and required nutrients from the soil to the body of plant. It will wilt and eventually die. It is also hard saving such a cactus, though sometimes when you repot it immediately (to a fitting soil mix) it may grow some new roots and recover. But the success isn’t guaranteed here.


Final thoughts

As you can see now, the Christmas Cactus may wilt from several reasons. By far the most common (and the least expected by inexperienced growers) is under-watering and subsequent root rot. In some instances though the exact opposite–under-watering–is to blame, or excessive use of fertilizers. In very rare cases your Christmas Cactus may “wilt of old age”, but this is super rare considering how long these plants can live. I hope you have found out why your Christmas Cactus is wilting, and wish you good luck with your plants!


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