Sick Christmas cactus! Help please?

heidinoel(6 MA)March 6, 2007


I am wondering if any of you would be able to help me. Please!

I could really use some advice on my sick plant.

I have a Christmas cactus which has been passed down for generations. Two years ago, I received mine from my wonderful aunt who passed away. In addition to raising my child, my live's work is to keep this cactus alive!

The problem is this;

My cactus has grown and thrived for two years in my kitchen window. From the minute I brought it home it has been happy. The leaves have been full, and year round I see bright green new baby leaves, growning at the bottom of the older leaves.

I know this seems weird, but I water it only once a week, and at the end of that week, if the soil isn't totally dry at the top, I let it go another week w/ out water.

Up to this point, no problems!

The plant is in a hanging planter about 15" in diameter. It is in a window which gets indirect sunlight all day. (Our neighbors' house blocks any direct sun.)

The plant is large, I"m guessing it weighs abut 50lbs.

In the past three weeks however, I have noticed that the leaves at the end of the plant, and now, whole branches, are starting to get thin (no water in them?) and drop off. They are no longer plump and filled w/ water.

Some of the dying leaves are those which face the window, some are those which do not face the window.

In the past week, I gave it more water, but it hasn't seemed to do any good (the leaves are still thin and shrively).

Please, please can you offer some suggestions? I really can't let this plant die!

Perhaps you might also have some suggestions of anyone else I could also try.

I would love a house call from someone -- but I am in Masachusetts.

Thank you for any help you can offer!


My same-day follow-up posting:

Actually, a big branch just came off my cactus (sob, sob).

I looked closely at the end that broke off (the opposite end from the tip of the cactus). Under a thin layer of dried leaf/stalk (?) right at the place it broke off -- there is something that looks like white mold climbing up the broken branch (only about 1/2") I'm not positive it's mold, but it set my allergies off big-time so I'm guessing that's what it is. It looks a little like the cocoon a moth makes (very thin and silky). It isn't a cocoon, but that's what it looks like.

The bottom of the branch (which broke off) is a little damp. Not soaked, but a little wet.


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You may have mealy bug, from being overwatered (you may not be watering all that often, though weekly for a cactus in winter is tooo often, but the soil may also be slooow draining, i.e. peaty potting soil rather than coarse compost of more grit than soil, as well as the plant may be very rootbound, which makes it want lots of water when there's no soil to hold it and the roots begin 'drowning' if they're cactus. You need to find out if it needs a new pot and soil (and maybe a good trim of old woody roots), plus use a mild fungicide to get rid of the fungus.

    Bookmark   March 6, 2007 at 6:40PM
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heidinoel(6 MA)

Thanks, Lucy.

Any specific ideas for a fungicide? (I'm new to all this.)

Which soil do you recommend if I need to repot? (Peaty or coarse? Any specifics?)

Would it be better to try the fungicide first, see how it goes, and then repot? Or, do it all at once?

Yes, the plant has been in it's current pot for ages and ages, so I susect it is very rootbound, though I heard this Christmas cactus like this. So, I'm not sure how to know if I NEED to repot.

It's freezing here in New England so I'm hesitant to take the plant outside/to a plant store.


    Bookmark   March 6, 2007 at 7:27PM
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shriveled stems indicate too little water, but it sounds as though it is getting plenty.

    Bookmark   March 6, 2007 at 8:30PM
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heidinoel(6 MA)

Some else I talked w/ today told me that on these cactus, the stems "implode" when there is too much water as wel too little.

Has anyone else heard this? Is it true?

Very confusing!

    Bookmark   March 6, 2007 at 8:51PM
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heidinoel(6 MA)

Oops, I meant the LEAVES implode.

    Bookmark   March 6, 2007 at 8:53PM
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Hi heidinoel, here is my contribution to your lovely plant. Its a little long but itÂs already been written and I just copied and pasted (too lazy to editÂsorryÂ:) I have followed this routine for ages with any Christmas cactus IÂve had and it works well for me. I hope some of the information below will be useful to you as well...

Cultural mistakes are made with this plant starting with its misleading name. When we think of Âcactus we think of a plant that grows in hot, sandy deserts and is well-adapted to little precipitation in extremely arid environments because of its ability to conserve water in stems, leaves or roots. But the Christmas cactus is a native of humid jungles  a far cry from the Sahara-style wastelands  and would derive more pleasure from the droplets of a shower than the scorching rays of the sun.

Since its natural home is a forest, the Christmas cactus has different growing needs than its relatives in the desert. Unlike the sand-lovers, this jungle dweller will require the same watering methods you practice on all other tropical plants you have in your home. This cactus is not quite as drought-tolerant as its desert kin, and although as a succulent it can store a reasonable quantity of water, it will nonetheless go limp if itÂs excessively moisture-deprived. Keep the soil evenly moist at all times during the growing period and water thoroughly when the top half of the soil feels dry to the touch. Needless to say that the Christmas cactus, which is more of a tropical, requires the same humidity levels (50 Â 60 percent) as all the other moisture-loving plants in your home to be comfortable.

The length of time between watering depends on your homeÂs environment  temperature, light, humidity, etc. DonÂt water on a rigid schedule. It is especially important to water carefully while the plant is developing its flower buds. Over-watering can cause the buds to drop off the plant just as they are getting ready to bloom  an incredibly frustrating experience! Likewise, chronic lack of water can also cause buds and flowers in full bloom to drop prematurely. When you water, donÂt just give your plant little sips; drench it thoroughly to make sure that the entire root system is covered. Water enough to soak the soil (until you see water emerging from the potÂs drainage holes). By watering heavily, you are also leaching excess salts that accumulate in the soil and discouraging any dry air pockets from developing. Giving plants measly sips of water can cause large dry pockets in the soil, which can keep the root system from getting a drink at all. Water well, when itÂs time to water. Make sure to dump the excess from the potÂs saucer below. Never leave your plantÂs pot sitting in water. Allow your plant to dry out appropriately before soaking it again the next time.

A well-draining soil is a must for a Christmas cactus, which is very susceptible to rot. Mix your own formula or purchase one specific to succulent plants if you prefer to use commercially-packaged soil. If your plant dries out or wilts frequently, itÂs probably time to repot into a larger container, although this chore should be limited to the spring season after the flower exhibit is over and the cactus has had its essential rest period. You may choose to also prune your plant when you repot, which will encourage your cactus to branch out. You can remove segments from each stem by pinching them off with your fingers or by using a sharp knife. The sections that you remove can be rooted to produce new plants!

After the flowers have faded, allow the plant to have a much-needed rest by minimizing water for about 6 weeks. During this rest period, place your plant  if possible  in a cooler area and donÂt fret if it loses a few leaves or appears weak. Plants expend a lot of energy in flower development and earn the right to look a little worn-out when the glitzy exhibit is over. After a few weeks of rest, new growth will appear and you can resume regular watering. During the spring and summer seasons keep the soil evenly moist (I know itÂs a juggling act) and treat your plant like a regular houseplant. When the fall season arrives, give the cactus enough water to keep it from shriveling during the flower bud formation; the soil should barely be moist. Increase water to normal levels while the plant is flowering, again being careful not to over or under water.

The next step Check for insect infestations!

It also sounds like you might have mealybug. Is so, you must start treatment right away. These are nasty pests and very difficult to get rid of. Arm yourself and wage war. Rubbing alcohol is one of the most effective treatments for these nasty bugs; it strips their protective waxy coating and dehydrates them, allowing you to easily wipe or rinse them away. If the infestation is minimal, dunk some cotton swabs in rubbing alcohol, dab the insects with it and wash them away with the saturated cotton or under running water. Be merciless. Together with alcohol wipes, use brute force when possible; crush, squish and pulverize them with your fingers, then rinse them away with water or wipe them off with cotton swabs dipped in alcohol.
Pick up a plastic misting bottle  preferably inexpensive  and prepare an effective mealy-extermination spray. Fill it with one part (70% isopropyl) rubbing alcohol to three parts water. Mist your infected plant thoroughly, top to bottom, making sure to douse the nooks and crannies of your plant where the mealy bugs will take refuge and the alcohol solution is likely to miss them. Your spray has to make direct contact with the bugs for the extermination to be successful. Repeat this application for several weeks  twice a week is highly recommended  to be completely rid of the little demons. This method is more efficient and effective than simply wiping with cotton swabs since itÂs more likely to make contact with the newly hatched mealy bugs that go into hiding. Many houseplants growers that IÂve met over the years create their own solutions for insect battles. In addition to the alcohol, some plant owners add a few drops of mild dishwashing liquid to the mister but I've never tried it.

Good luck!

    Bookmark   March 7, 2007 at 12:05AM
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I would take some cuttings now just as insurance. A 15" pot would be too large for all but a gigantic CC. I water my CC more than you heidinoel. I do let it dry out a bit between winter waterings but I also keep mine cool during this time period. I have never seen a leaf implode. Even if you don't increase the pot size, your CC would no doubt appreciate some fresh soil. I would get this stem dropping issue cleared up before doing it however. The most common cause of this is too dry a soil BTW. Do the leaves wrinkle? If so I would give it more, not less water. You may have mealies as well but I really think theres a watering issue here. I hope you can bring it around, heirloom CCs are a treasure.

    Bookmark   March 7, 2007 at 2:56AM
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rhizo_1 (North AL) zone 7

Testing or looking at the top of the potting medium for dryness is not a good method of judging whether or not to water.

Since this is pretty much a guessing game based on the little information we can glean from your post, I'd guess that your plant is over-watered. The top of the soil may appear to be dry, but the major part of the soil volume could still be soaked. This would especially be the case if your potting mix is not one that is uniformly coarse textured. Watering at weekly intervals seems excessive for this plant, unless you are giving it tiny sips, as suggested earlier. As mentioned, plants should be drenched thoroughly, and then allowed to dry out.

I see nothing in your post that indicates the usefulness of a fungicide. Do a google on mealybugs to see if that's what you have, and if so, go after them with the alcohol sprays.

    Bookmark   March 7, 2007 at 10:29AM
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heidinoel(6 MA)

rhizo 1, fred_grow, and nature_lover,

I can't thaink you all enough for taking the time to help me, in my desperate need!

Thank you for your good, clear, instructions. Just what I need as a beginner. I took the branch that came off, into a garden shop today. The fellow I spoke w/ felt the same as you, I probably over watered it and I should leave it alone and let it dry out.

I haven't seen anything that looks like mealybugs nor did he. So, I think I'll wait on that -- though I was prepared to run right to the drug store for alcohol.

The tough part will be, knowing when to begin watering again. I just want to make sure I don't get into a visious cycle of over/underwatering.


I AM, at your suggestion, going to take some clippings as soon as my lovely CC starts to mend. I measured my plant again and it's in a 12" pot.

Any tips on taking clippings? How would I start them? In soil? Water?

I am also going to repot w/ fresh soil, but I also think I should probably wait until the plant is "stablized."

Any tips on repotting?

Yes, the leaves are wrinkling!


Thank you, as well. The info. was very helpful. Thank you for taking th time to "harvest" it :-)

It is actually reasurring to know I AM watering in the correct manner. Maybe just too much lately.

Thank you all again,

    Bookmark   March 7, 2007 at 8:02PM
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Just twist off some healthy looking segments. Lay them aside for about 3 days to let them heal. Stick them in 1/2 perlite and 1/2 potting soil. Mist them daily for a couple weeks and then begin to water conservatively. This time of year it shouldn't take too long.

    Bookmark   March 7, 2007 at 9:02PM
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heidinoel(6 MA)

Hi again,

Thank you!

By segments, do you mean one of the "leaves" or a group of "leaves" in between "branches"? Sorry, I'm very new at this.

Will they eventually grw roots? If/When this happens, what do you suggest I repot them in (soil-wise)? Should I plant several togther? How big (or small, as I'm learning) should the pot be?

Thank you so so much.


    Bookmark   March 8, 2007 at 9:51PM
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rhizo_1 (North AL) zone 7

Xmas cactus don't have leaves. Each 'branch' is a stem composed of numerous little segments or joints. At the end of each segment are the cells that will initiate new root growth. And more stems, down the road.

Stem cuttings won't work unless they are nice and healthy. Don't even bother if the stem sections you're trying to propagate are still soft and wrinkled.

Each cutting should consist of three or four segments. Don't be tempted to take large cuttings (with a bunch of segments), as that will greatly reduce your success. I actually never let mine dry out for a few days, but I know that others urge that you do so. As long as you use plenty of perlite in your potting medium, rot will not be a problem.

Take as many cuttings as you like. I will typically take three from the same plant and insert them (together) in a small clay pot for rooting and growing. These cuttings result in a well-balanced finished plant.

Also, I'd strongly suggest that upon sticking the cuttings into your perlite/potting medium that you drench it then and there. Those cuttings will need moisture in the beginning. Again, by adding plenty of perlite, you reduce the chance of rot. (You can even use 100% perlite, which is what I do.)

Attached is an image of a cactus stems consisting of about three segments each.

    Bookmark   March 9, 2007 at 12:41PM
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heidinoel(6 MA)

Perfect! Thank you so much for the kind hand-holding.

I will try taking some cuttings once I see the plant stabilizing.

I am assuming I put the cut end into the perlite/potting medium :-)

So far, no more segments or branches have dropped off -- but many are still flat. I'm hanging in there and hoping we're over the worst.

I will post in another few days to check-in... THANK YOU ALL!!!!


    Bookmark   March 10, 2007 at 8:22AM
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Did your CC survive? I reached the end of this thread and am dying to know how it all turned out!


    Bookmark   August 20, 2007 at 7:35PM
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heidinoel(6 MA)

Hello, hello,

I have been very remiss in not writing sooner. Please believe, on almost a daily basis, when I look at my gorgeous, seemingly healthy Christmas cactus, I think about all of you truly wonderful people who took time from your busy days/evening to help me.

THANK YOU!! I don't know how else to say it, but because of all your thoughtful, kind, and patient help, my aunt's Christmas cactus survived.

It continues to hang (happily, so it seems) in my kitchen window. It is a little thinner after it's harrowing experience, but it seems to be doing pretty well.

I still have no idea why it started to die, but it seems to be coming back to life! There are a few new buds and the plant seems healthy and growing stronger.

I just really want to say again, belatedly, thank you so much, to all of you who helped me! No words can tell you how much I appreciate your kindness... But, I truly do. I couldn't not have done it with out you all.

Thank you!!!!



    Bookmark   August 20, 2007 at 9:30PM
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I am glad to hear your plant made it!

A few things I would like to say that were not mentioned - one is that when using rubbing alcohol to kill mealies or any bug, be very careful not to get it on the soil, it can kill the plant if it reaches the roots - a very small amount when misting is fine, but you don't want to drench the soil with it. If you plan on spraying heavily, cover the soil with aluminum foil or plastic wrap first.

I also had one of my CC's just fall apart on me, whole sections just dropping off - no shriveled leaves, no warning! On closer inspection, I found some rot - this is the one CC I did not repot, and the mix it was in was way too dense and peaty...Out of an 8 inch pot and from what was a nice sized plant, I was only able to save one small rooted section and alot of cuttings, which are now looking pretty good...but no matter how good a plant looks when you get it, repotting into an appropriate mix is a good idea. I use orchid bark, perlite and a small amount of potting soil, about equal parts, a little less of the soil. This is the same mix I use for ALL my plants, except the real cacti and some succulents.

    Bookmark   August 21, 2007 at 1:55PM
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heidinoel(6 MA)

Yes, Ines. That's what mine did. For no apparent (seemingly) reason, it just started loosing leaves. I don't think it had mealies -- I didn't see anything. But thank you for the tip re: rubbing alcohol, I will be careful.

Can you please answer two questions?

1. How did you know/how do I know when it's time to repot? (I sort of thought it was okay for the roots to be bound...)

2. What makes your mixture of orchid bark, etc so good? I'm always curious what else I should/could be doing.

Thank you!


    Bookmark   August 21, 2007 at 10:28PM
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Need to know since all my buds fell off what i can do to get more buds back on her in enough time for christmas.?

    Bookmark   December 1, 2012 at 3:18PM
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