There’s a good reason holiday cacti are among the most popular succulents. Easter cacti (a.k.a. spring cacti) are relatively easy and undemanding houseplants, non-toxic to pets and small children, and if cared for properly, produce a dazzling array of flowers that brighten up the months when most plants look drab.
Holiday cacti (so named because of the timing of their blooms) can also live a very long time. However, they do have somewhat different care needs from most cacti and succulents. In particular, they need to be given the right conditions for a winter dormancy to produce flowers. With a few simple tips, you can enjoy the bright rosy flowers of Spring cactus until your spring bulbs have bloomed.
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Quick Guide to Spring Cactus
|Botanical name (Family)||Rhipsalideae gaertneri (Cactaceae family)|
|Sun requirements||Bright direct indoor light or dappled outdoor sunlight preferred|
|Hardiness/Zone||Hardy outdoors only in Zones 10-12|
|Water needs||Typical for a succulent|
|Primary growth season||Spring through fall; requires a winter dormancy period to bloom|
|Typical size at maturity||Typically a foot or so, but these plants can grow quite old and up to several feet in diameter, given sufficient time and good health|
Identifying Rhipsalideae Gaertneri
The broader category of holiday cactus includes three species. The most common is Schlumbergera truncata (Thanksgiving cactus). Another favorite is Schlumbergera bridgesii (Christmas cactus). The last holiday cactus is the subject of this article: Rhipsalidopsis gaertneri (Easter cactus or spring cactus).
Despite being different species, these plants are very similar looking and have the same care needs, with the primary difference being the timing of their blooms (which tend to coincide with the holiday for which they are named).
However, producers often manipulate the growing season to force these plants to bloom outside of their natural cycle.
For example, Thanksgiving cacti are commonly forced to flower late so they can be labeled as Christmas cacti and sold (in flower) in the lead-up to Christmas. That means that the name on the store tag and the timing of the flowers when you buy the plant aren’t very good indicators of which plant you’re dealing with.
The easiest way to distinguish these plants is based on their anatomy.
- Thanksgiving cactus has several sawtooth-like spikes projecting outward.
- Spring cactus stem segments are more uniformly oblong.
- The Christmas cactus segments narrow at the root-end, more like a paddle shape.
Info: None of these plants have leaves; the green part is actually flattened segments of the stem.
They also have different flowers and shapes:
- Spring cacti typically have red or pink petals in a star-like shape.
- Christmas cacti come in pink and purple or lavender and have more tubular flowers, which can look like one flower stacked on top of the other.
- Thanksgiving Cactus can come in any of those colors, plus white, golden yellow, or occasionally other colors, and the blossoms are similar in shape to Christmas Cactus.
If you would like suggestions for other great flowering succulents to grow alongside your holiday cactus, check out our photo-guide to twenty of our favorites.
Growing Requirements for Rhipsalideae Gaertneri
Where to Plant
Spring cacti originated in the jungles of Brazil. They are epiphytic plants, meaning that they tend to root in trees and rocky cliffs. As their branches grow longer, they arch outward and downward from their perch. They do not do well in the dense, poorly draining soil of most gardens but might do well tucked into a rock wall, for example.
Note: This plant is not cold-hardy. It does not tolerate winters outside of Zone 10-12, so if your area gets colder than around 45 degrees Fahrenheit in the winter, you may need to grow your spring cactus in a pot and bring it indoors when the temperature drops.
As you might expect of a plant that in nature often grows in trees, the Spring cactus does not prefer a lot of direct sunlight, especially when it is in flower.
Dappled sunlight, or bright indirect light, works best outdoors. Up to a few hours of direct morning sunlight may be acceptable.
Indoor Spring cactus can typically tolerate direct sunlight. However, if you are going to give them direct sunlight, a west, east, or north-facing window is preferable to a south-facing window.
In order to bloom, Spring cacti need to experience true winter conditions.
Note: Long dark nights and cool (not cold) temperatures. Specifically, they need 12-15 hour nights for a month and a half or so, and temperatures around 55-65 during the day and 50-55 at night.
While they are flowering, they prefer 70 degrees during the day and 65 at night. During this time, you should also move your Spring cactus away from the window so that it only gets bright indirect light.
One of the things that makes this cactus so delightful, other than the flowers, is that according to ASPCA both Christmas and Easter cacti are pet-safe succulents. If you want to grow your succulent collection without endangering your four-legged family, check out our guide to other pet-safe succulents.
Container and Soil
Even though these are jungle plants, you might think they would like to be wet. But Spring cacti grow in places where their roots don’t stay wet for long, such as rocky cliffs and up in trees.
That means to grow them in a pot (or landscape), you need loose, well-draining potting mix. Outside, in the correct growing zone, they need to be planted in an area with great drainage. Indoors, a pot with a good drainage hole is essential.
Because of their sprawling stems, which can form a trailing habit, a hanging planter can be a great option. Spring cactus flowers bloom from the end of each stem, and some gardeners find that a hanging pot encourages the development of more numerous stems.
Note: If you don’t want to use a hanging planter, a regular pot or planter is also fine. The branches do not get as long as trailing succulents like string of pearls or string of hearts unless your plant is extremely mature.
If your pot doesn’t have a drainage hole (for example, if it’s an indoor hanging planter), you can use the ‘pot in a pot’ method. Keep in mind that these plants can become bulky and heavy and, therefore, difficult to remove from the external pot. So, if your pot doesn’t have drainage, it might work better to drill a drainage hole.
Commercially available cactus-specific potting mixes will work, but the ideal is to mix your own because:
- It is better for your plants than anything you’ll find at a big-box home and garden store.
- More cost efficient.
- You can blend different ratios for different purposes.
Also, commercially available cactus mix is peat-based, and peat tends to compact and become hydrophobic over time. On the other hand, peat does lower the pH of the soil more than coconut coir does, and like many succulents spring cacti do like slightly acidic soil.
We recommend using Our Favorite Succulent Mix recipe, which is coconut coir based. However, our Shortcut Succulent Mix recipe, which builds on the base of a commercially available peat-based cactus mix, would also work well for a Spring cactus.
The key is adding coarse sand and perlite or another gritty amendment to make sure the soil drains well instead of retaining water.
Like many cacti and other succulents, the biggest danger to your Spring cactus is a heavy hand with the watering can. Like most succulents, Spring cacti need water, but they prefer dry feet. They are prone to root rot and other pests and diseases when over-watered.
The best way to water your Spring cactus is on an as-needed basis, rather than on a schedule. When the pot has dried out down to an inch or two, water it.
We recommend using the “soak and dry” or “dunk and soak” methods for watering. Test the soil for dryness every time, and don’t re-water until it passes the test.
This might be as often as bi-weekly during a hot summer, especially if your plant needs repotting due to overgrowing the pot, but in the winter, your plant might go a month without needing water.
Note: Until you establish the watering needs for a Spring cactus in the particular environment where you’re growing it, you might find it helpful to use our helpful tracking card. Use it to keep a record of seasonal watering frequency so that you’ll have a good bench-line in future years.
Holiday cacti and desert cacti neither want wet roots, but holiday cacti thrive when given the extra humidity they would have in a jungle environment.
There are two ways to emulate this:
- One option is to mist your plant occasionally with a spray bottle.
- Another is to place your pot on a saucer containing a layer of gravel and some water. As the water evaporates it will provide a humidity boost.
The gravel in the saucer is important — you don’t want to place the pot in a puddle of water so that the water is absorbed through the potting mix in the drainage hole. This will maintain wet soil for too long a period of time, plus it means that the water won’t be available in the saucer to evaporate and humidify the air.
Fertilizer and Maintenance
Repot your Spring cactus every three to five years. They don’t mind being a bit root-bound, so as long as you’re fertilizing regularly, go ahead and wait until the pot is fairly crowded. Then, repot after the flowering season is over, but before it puts on new buds.
It’s also a good idea to repot it when you first bring the cactus home, so you can make sure the roots are healthy and the pot contains appropriate potting mix and adequate drainage. Our guide to choosing a succulent pot is full of tips for finding an appropriate pot.
Spring cacti benefit more than many succulents from regular feeding, although, as in the case with any succulent, you do want to avoid over-fertilizing.
Note: While we typically say that you don’t need to bother fertilizing in the first year after repotting a succulent, when its soil is freshest, in the case of Spring cactus, it wouldn’t hurt to fertilize a couple of times in the first year.
Once in the spring and once in the summer will be fine. In subsequent years, fertilize monthly from spring through early fall.
The best fertilizer choice is an organic, liquid, cactus-specific fertilizer. My go-to is Dr. Earth Organic & Natural Pump & Grow Succulence Cactus & Succulent Plant Food, but there are other reliable brands that make a similarly appropriate product. If you do use an organic fertilizer formulated specifically for cacti or succulents, as we recommend, you can simply follow the package instructions.
If you are using a chemical fertilizer not designed for succulents, make sure to dilute it to a quarter-strength, or at most half-strength, of what is indicated on the package instructions.
Over-fertilizing must be avoided because if the plants can’t absorb the fertilizer from the soil the excess nutrients can damage the plant’s roots.
Note: Avoid fertilizer that has an NPK ratio where the nitrogen (N) is higher than the phosphorus (P) or potassium (K). An even balance is preferable. Nitrogen is included in fertilizer largely to encourage leaf, and these plants don’t have leaves.
Spring cacti don’t need much pruning or much maintenance other than removing the spent flowers when they die (most will drop off on their own). However, pruning (after the blooming season is over but before new buds form) can encourage growth and forking of the branches.
As it becomes more mature, your plant will likely develop corking. This is when the base of the stem becomes hard, brown, and woody. This is a natural part of your plant’s growth cycle.
As the stems get longer and heavier, corking gives the plant the structural stability it needs so that the weight of the stems doesn’t pull them right out of the pot or break them off. If you don’t like the corking and are satisfied with a smaller plant, you can always propagate the green ends of the stems to start over with a smaller plant.
Stem propagation of Spring cactus is quite simple. You may notice that your cactus is already growing fine, hair-like roots directly from the stem joints like it wants to self-propagate (as it does in nature). Although this plant is leafless, so leaf propagation is not an option, all you need is a cutting of stem that is at least one segments long.
- After you take your cutting (using a sharp, sterile knife or clippers), leave your cutting on a plate or similar surface to cure for a day or so before planting it.
- During the curing process, keep the cutting out of direct sunlight or temperature extremes.
- After that, nestle the root-end of your cutting in a shallow dish of damp potting mix, preferably our recipe for Seed Starting & Propagation Mix.
If you’re new to this process, you can check out our guide for more tips on propagating your succulents. However, one aspect of propagating Spring cactus will be different from the typical instructions because it originates in a jungle environment.
For most (desert-originating) succulents, we recommend keeping water to a minimum during the propagation process because the plants get most of their nutrition and water from the propagated leaves. Plus, letting the very top layer of potting mix dry out encourages the roots to grow downward faster, seeking water.
But since the Spring cacti are leafless and jungle plants, they are most comfortable in a humid environment.
In order to coddle your stem cuttings, you should ensure they have a proper amount of humidity (at least 50% humidity is good). If your home is dry, you can increase the humidity by misting. Here are other ways you should try:
- Resting the pot in a shallow tray of water and a layer of gravel (the water should not be in contact with the soil mix).
- Placing a clear plastic container of some sort over the cutting to trap moisture like a greenhouse.
Spring cactus can also be propagated from seed if you are patient.
Common Spring Cactus Problems
Holiday cacti are generally healthy and resilient, which is how some grow to be as much as a century and a half old. However, they aren’t completely immune from problems, and they tend to have slightly different problems than typical (desert-originating) cacti and succulents.
- No flower buds – Holiday cacti depend on seasonal shifts to trigger bloom development. During the winter, they need short days with a maximum of 9-12 hours of light. Even artificial light in the evenings can be enough to disrupt them. Cooler temperatures during the winter months also help, so if you keep your house very warm you might want to look for space in a protected but unheated sunroom, for example.
- Buds/flowers fall off – Bright indirect light and consistent temperatures help this plant retain its blooms. Make sure your flowering Spring cactus isn’t in direct sunlight and is protected from major drafts and sources of excess heat (such as a nearby heating vent). Also, make sure you avoid letting the plant get too dry while also avoiding over-watering.
- Root rot – Water only as needed, when the top couple of inches of potting mix has dried out. Then use an appropriate watering method. If your plant’s pot doesn’t have a drainage hole, repot into one that does.
- Botrytis blight – This is a gray fungus that can attack your holiday cactus if it is in an environment with an excess of water and humidity, for example, a greenhouse. It can be treated with fungicide.
- Pests – While generally resilient, a Spring cactus can develop a mealybug or aphid infestation. If your cactus is buggy, check out our guide to identifying and eliminating these pests.
There are also two situations that may make you wonder if your succulent is healthy that are actually not problems.
- “Hair” growth – Some holiday cacti grow small brown hair-like tendrils from the base of each stem section. These are aerial roots, which capture moisture from the air and help the plant self-propagate in nature. They are nothing to worry about.
- Brown woody stem at base of plant – This is “corking,” a natural stage in the growth of a mature holiday cactus. As the plant gets bigger and the branches become heavier, corking gives the plant the stable base it needs so that the branches don’t break or unroot themselves due to their weight. It is a sign of plant health and maturity, not a problem.
For any other symptoms, check out our succulent symptom decision tree and guide for help with diagnosing and resurrecting your Easter cactus.
Start Spring in Full Color with Easter Cactus
Other than needing a little more water and humidity, Spring cacti are generally as easy to care for and resilient to pests and diseases as other cacti and succulents. While it might take a little trial and error to find the right place to over-winter your Spring cactus to ensure it puts on its beautiful spring flower display, it is well worth the effort.
Once you understand its needs, you can grow these beautiful flowers each spring for the rest of your life and your children’s lives and potentially become the next record-holder for longest-living holiday cactus.