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Shriveled “Leaves” Mean Your Holiday Cactus is In Trouble

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A healthy, blooming Thanksgiving cactus (Schlumbergera truncata). Source: Peter coxhead, Wikipedia Commons

In general, home gardeners do pretty well with Christmas cactus, both the real thing (Schlumbergera x buckleyi) and its close relative, Thanksgiving cactus (S. truncata), which I’ll call holiday cacti in this article. (Read When your Christmas Cactus Blooms Too Early to know how to distinguish between the two.) In many homes, they come to bloom twice a year, in November/December and again in February/March. And they live for decades with only minimal care. But sometimes you start to notice that all isn’t right. The “leaves” (stem segments) go from shiny, green and plump to dull, thin, shriveled, soft and sometimes even reddish. What’s going on?

Not a Leaf in Sight

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The flat growths on holiday cactus are stems, not leaves. Source: Julie Weisenhorn. University of Minnesota.

Banish the word “leaf” from your vocabulary when thinking about holiday cactus. They have no leaves at all or rather, no longer do. Way back when they sprouted as seedlings, and that can be 40 or more years ago, they did bear exactly two cotyledons (seed leaves), but ever since, they’ve been getting along strictly using their stems. The flattened green stem segments link together like a chain, eventually forming an arching, hanging plant and even later, turning brown and woody (at least the very oldest stems do). Being green, stem segments carry out photosynthesis like a leaf would and keep the plant fueled in energy. But still, stem segments just aren’t leaves.

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Limp, shriveled segments show that this Christmas cactus is in serious trouble. Thughorse, garden.org

When stems become soft and shriveled, it’s essentially because they are thirsty: not enough moisture is reaching them. Logic would seem to suggest they simply need to be watered more, but that’s not necessarily the right thing to do.

Lack of Water or Too Much?

There are two main reasons why moisture fails to reach the stems, especially the last segments. Either the soil is too dry or the roots are damaged … and the latter can actually be caused by too much water!

If the Soil Is Too Dry

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Holiday cacti will often keep blooming even when they’re suffering from severe root damage. Source: zensero, home-design

If the soil is too dry, that’s easy enough to see or, at least, to feel. Touch it. Your fingers will easily feel the dryness. So, if dry soil is causing the shriveled stems, yes, watering is the obvious solution. Not just a light watering, but a deep, thorough watering, so that the whole root ball is thoroughly moistened.

Sometimes, when potting soil is very, very dry, it repels water, so when you water the plant, moisture no longer penetrates the soil, but runs off immediately into the saucer below. This is especially common in hanging baskets, which we tend to water more lightly than we should, fearing any surplus water will pour out of the saucer onto the floor. As a result, the poor plant never gets enough moisture and is constantly drought-stressed.

If that’s your diagnosis, don’t just water the plant, soak the root ball. Plunge the pot into a sink or pail water of tepid water and let it soak for 10 to 15 minutes. Then let it drain thoroughly. Once rehydrated, the soil will become water-receptive again and you can water normally in the future … unless you allow it to dry out too once again.

How Often Should I Water a Holiday Cactus?

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Water your holiday cactus when the soil is dry to the touch. Source: homedepot.com

Holiday cacti are not desert plants and don’t need to be kept dry like desert cacti. Although quite forgiving of irregular care, they do prefer “even moisture” throughout the year. Just follow the golden rule of watering: water deeply, enough to moisten the entire root ball, then allow the soil to dry before watering again. It works every time!

When Soil Remains Wet

If your plant shows shriveled stems, but the soil is still moist to the touch, it’s obvious the problem is not related to underwatering. The situation is, in fact, much more serious. This occurs when the roots are dead or dying!

There are many reasons why the roots can be in such bad shape. Here are the two main ones.

  • Soil kept too moist. If the potting mix is constantly wet, oxygen can’t reach the roots which, unable to breathe, start to die. Then root rot sets in. This is a disease caused by various pathogens—Pythium, Phytophthora, Rhizoctonia, Fusarium, etc.—whose spores lie dormant in most soils, ready to spring into action whenever root cells start to suffer. The disease then spreads from the dying roots to living ones, killing them in turn. Obviously, without roots or with fewer roots, the plant can no longer correctly hydrate itself, even if the soil is soaking in moisture, and its stems begin to shrivel. It reminds me of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner: “water, water everywhere, nor any drop to drink!”
  • Mineral salt buildup. Over time, usually over several to many years, salts accumulate in any houseplant’s potting soil. They’re present in small quantities in the water you apply and in even greater quantities in fertilizer. When they increase too much, there comes a point where the soil contains more salts than do the roots. Water will then flow from the plant into the surrounding soil to dilute the concentration (this is called osmosis) rather than from the soil into the plant. As a result, the roots lack water and start to die. Often, the accumulation of salts in the soil is accompanied by a whitish or yellowish crust on the rim of the pot or even on the stem of the plant. Epiphytic plants such as holiday cactus are especially susceptible to mineral salt damage.

Change the Soil to Save Your Plants

If you suspect that mineral salt buildup is causing the problem, the easiest solution is to repot.

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Repotting will help this shriveled Christmas cactus recuperate. Source: Zanes Wildflora

Unpot the plant and remove as much of the old soil as you can. If the roots are rotten (they’ll smell like rotten potatoes), prune them off. Prune out any rotting stems as well. Now repot into a clean pot (with drainage holes, of course). Note it need not be a larger pot. In fact, if the plant has lost roots, it’s often best to repot it into a somewhat smaller one. Any potting mix that drains well (houseplant soil, cactus soil, orchid mix, etc.) will be suitable.

Water well to moisten the soil initially, then modestly for the coming months, only when the soil is dry to the touch. Usually, the plant will readily produce new roots when given fresh potting soil and its health will begin to improve. Still, you have to be patient: it may take several months before you see a clear improvement.

Take a Few Cuttings

Also, whenever a holiday cactus is looking a bit off, it’s always wise to take cuttings in case you fail to revive the original plant.

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Take backup cuttings of wilting holiday cacti. Source: laventanadejaviruli.blogspot.ca

For best results, choose stems with at least three segments (four or five would be even better). To remove them, twist the stems rather than cut them: they will separate quite naturally at the base of a segment.

Insert the cuttings into a small pot of slightly moist potting soil, completely covering the lower segment in mix. Keep the mix slightly moist until new growth appears and that can take several months.

Backup Plants

One of the reasons I suggest combining taking cuttings together with any other rescue method for a declining holiday cactus is that sometimes very old specimens don’t respond well to repotting, even when you’re doing it to save their life. They seem stuck on their old ways and prefer to die slowly rather than accept a change for the better … like some older humans, by the way. The cuttings thus become your “backups.”

Good luck saving your Christmas and Thanksgiving cacti!20171213A Thughorse, garden.org

33 comments on “Shriveled “Leaves” Mean Your Holiday Cactus is In Trouble

  1. I’m sorry to read about the Author, Larry passing. I had saved this excellent article several years ago when I had inherited my mother’s old Christmas cactus and needed help with it. Unfortunately it did not survive my care but I was able to keep it about 5 years. I’ve had the same problems with all my older Christmas & Easter Cactus that were thriving; the branches end up shriveling & get hollow and soft. Never sure why?
    Having the same problem now & referred back to this post. I’m going to take segments/cuttings to replant, hope not too late. My Mom & Aunts always put the stem segments in water first to grow some roots and then plant in soil.
    They would often share segments by mail.
    However, in this article it states plant in soil first? Some of the commenters also root in water first.
    I tried a segment in water and did not work, rotted. Maybe that works for Easter Cactus? I did not dry the segment first. Not sure which way to go? I’ll try directly planting in soil.
    Any advice?

    • I never have luck trying to root in water. Rot every time. I literally will place a freshly broken piece in potting mix with added perlite and it works. I know most will say to let the open end callous before planting but I never have and it works 98% of the time. I have 2 pots full of random pieces that had either been knocked off or fell off and they are doing well. Mine also sit on a covered patio year round unless it will get under 32 degrees F. I live in Austin ,Texas so the Summers get pretty hot!
      Take clades of 3 (3 attached leaves) and place them in a shallow pot with a good potting mix (I use Miracle Gro) and add more perlite to the mix so it drains better. Make a small hole and place the clade in the dirt about half way up the base clade. Lightly water when needed or just mist the top of the soil every day until they root (I’ve done both). Then you can either leave in the pot or separate and put in individual pots. Mine is a hodge podge so when it blooms I’ll be surprised at all the colors. Good Luck!

  2. I have a 25ish year old Thanksgiving Cactus that suffered a bit from our HOT Texas Summer this year. It is kept on a covered patio but it was getting some morning sun earlier in the Summer. When I noticed the red color beginning on the clades I moved it to a completely shady spot. It has lived outside it’s entire life only coming in when we are going to get freezing temperatures. So, it’s acclimated to that environment. More recently, although covered in flowers this season, the clades closer to the ends are looking thin like they aren’t getting enough water yet when I check it the soil is moist. I use a moisture meter because I trust it more than I trust myself and it’s never let me down. Also, the soil is not compacted as I poked the meter all around to see if I hit any hard impassable soil. NOPE!
    I checked it all over for any kinds of bugs and there aren’t any. I went ahead and misted with a little vinegar water (1T to a quart of water) then dried the clades. I also removed all spent flowers and removed any dead clades from the undergrowth. This uncovered more new buds. I read your article above and went ahead and bottom watered as you recommend. The weather is getting back into the 70s now so it is back outdoors with all the other plants including 2 other TC and one CC. MY EC is a house dweller because it is such a Diva.
    I plan to keep an eye on it and see if there is any improvement over the coming weeks but if not do you recommend I go ahead and remove it from the pot and check the roots? It was repotted a year ago and has been doing fine until the brief Summer sun exposure. If you need photos to help diagnose it let me know and I’ll send them. Thanks!

  3. Lisbeth Halbach

    I have a Christmas cactus that has one larger side that is flowering some e and looks nealthy,and a smaller, shorter side that is looking shrivelly. The moisture is of course the same thru the whole pot. What shojld I do? I almost was going to break off the segments down to the first segment,but decided to look it up first.

  4. Mary E Krull

    Thank you for the suggestions. It’s possible my cuttings weren’t healthy. They were pieces that fell off, but I believe I’ve tried starting them at all times of the year. Do you dry yours for a couple days before “planting” them? What medium do you plant the cuttings in – soil, vermiculite, perlite, peat moss, mixture? How long does it take for them to root? How long after they root do you transplant them? Sorry for so many questions, but I am so determined to succeed with this. Thank you!

    • Theoretically, it would be wise to let them dry out for a few days, but I must admit I never have. And I just just regular potting soil: no special treatment. I would say they usually start to root within a month. And I transplant quite a while later, like even a year, when they’re clearly well established, with several stems.

  5. Mary E Krull

    I have many varieties of Thanksgiving cactus and a couple Christmas cactus. One of them has dry brown scaly edges on many of the lobes. I’m not sure what to do about them. Some of my plants just begin falling apart, and I don’t understand what causes that. I am a complete failure at starting cuttings of my plants. I have tried starting them in a cactus mix soil, vermiculite, perlite and even water. I have allowed them to dry for a couple days before sticking them into the medium. They either rot or dry up. I have never successfully rooted even one. I keep reading how easy it is, so I feel like a compete failure that I have not been able to. What am I doing wrong? I guess I am addressing three different problems in one comment. Do you have any advice for them? Thanks.

    • Oops! I find them easy! But… are you taking healthy stems? Ones that fall off on their own won’t be the best. And spring is best. Plus, try longer cuttings: 4 or 5 segments. And, cactus or not, good humidity can help. Keep trying: you’ll get it!

  6. Hi Laidback Gardener,
    I’m trying to discern what has gone wrong with my Easter cactus. The segments are shrivelled and wrinkled and some are drooping, but there is lots of new shoots on the plant. A few months ago I repotted it into a massive pot, which I realise now was a mistake so just today I popped it into a much smaller one. I didn’t think to check for root rot when repotting though. The soil in the large pot was not dry or overly moist when I switched pots. Any ideas? Should I get it out again and check the roots?

    • The Easter cactus is a more delicate plant than the Christmas cactus and losing segments is par for the course. It reacts negatively to overwatering, underwatering and a list of minor changes in culture. The fact that there is new growth is very encouraging, though, so I don’t think you have to worry.

      • Thanks! That’s encouraging :). I definitely don’t think it got over watered, but maybe the roots got suffocated when I put it in a massive pot. Or the water just drained through to the bottom and missed the roots higher up. I have cautiously watered it in its new smaller pot and also moved it back to its original location. It could be a thanksgiving cactus too, I’m never sure!

  7. Gina Jensen

    I inherited two Christmas cactus plants(actually one is a true Christmas and the other is not) when my mom passed away suddenly and unexpectedly in 2018. My mom had a natural green thumb and I have been trying to learn as I love having her plants in my home. Could I possibly send a couple of photos to have you look at to see if there are things I need to do but don’t realize it because I am so new at this? I think the true cactus needs repotting but that scares me because I really don’t want to lose it. Help.

  8. I have a cactus that is very old and near the roots the trunk is brown. I am going to repot. Is it ok to cut some of the brown off and root before potting?

    • It’s normal for the older part of the plant to become woody. Normally, you’d simply repot and leave the trunk as is. However, if you want to take cuttings and restart the plant, you can do that as well.

  9. Hello! I have a pretty new S. truncata plant (about a year old from a cutting of a friend’s plant). I recently repotted it to a larger pot and it is producing a lot of new “leaves” and some flower buds. The new “leaves” are coming in red and the older “leaves” have red tips. But there is a lot of new growth. The leaves are not shriveled at all. Is the redness a sign of stress? Anything I should be doing differently or looking for? Thank you!

    • Redness in a Schlumbergera is quite normal. It might mean their summer home is just a bit too sunny, but I find they actual bloom better in the fall if they are in that state. Also, the days are shorter at this time of yea, so the red parts should soon turn green.

  10. Jocelyn K

    I received a christmas cactus as a gift the day I had my only baby. That baby is almost 25 years old and I have kept both successfully alive. I live in the pacific NW in the USA and the plant seems to bloom every few years in June. (My son is superstitious because the flowers have coincided with many special moments in his life. Graduations, new jobs, etc)
    I’m desperate to keep this thing alive!
    This spring I repotted it for the first time in years and it bloomed for us. THEN as the flowers fell, a completely new sort of cactus (barrel type) started growing from one of the leaves. I’d like to share a picture and understand what is going on. It’s either really bad news or maybe my son is about to win the lottery.

  11. Heidi M

    I just separated and repotted into more manageable sized pots. The tips of each pad are turning white. Why. I’ve never seen this. I have quite a few Christmas cacti including a piece from my grandmothers plant that I have had for over 30 years. Any idea about the white tips. Thank you for your time and help.

    • This is the first time I’ve heard of this symptom, but Christmas cactus, especially mature specimens, are often slow to adapt to change and being divided and repotted can be quite a shock. Keep yours on the dry side at first and I’m sure it will recover. And take backup cuttings just in case!

  12. Mary Fjellstad

    I pruned some of the healthier branches and put them in water- they are blooming as is the original plant! I fed the original plant and it is definitely doing better. I will also re pot maybe that will also help. Hope that spring will soon be around the corner!

  13. Mary Fjellstad

    My cactus has tiny small burrs on the junction of stems and they are turning brown. I’ve never seen anything like this on any of my house plants before .

  14. Luke Pacholski

    The mineral salt tip is a good one; I’m not sure I’ve paid a ton of attention to that over the years.

    One tip that usually won’t directly address the cause of wilting, but can help recover from it: pruning. I’ve often found that if some segments aren’t looking too good, liberal pruning of the worst areas helps stimulate new growth. I have a good-sized plant that’s probably at least 60 years old that was not doing the best this past winter. It bloomed nicely, but a few woody sections rotted away near the base, and a lot of the plant was looking somewhat pale and wilted. I removed as much rotted material as I could, did quite a bit of pruning, and subsequently started watering more. Not only is most of the plant just generally looking better (brighter and fuller), there’s currently a ton of new growth.

    Plus, I saved a couple of the branches that had rot, removed the rotted segments, and put them in water. Amazingly they have all rooted and are looking much better, and one even has some new growth already.

    I still run into mysteries though. In late 2010 I cross pollinated a few of my different Schlumbergera, and in late 2011 I planted the resulting seeds. This past winter one of the seedlings was finally large enough to bloom, which it did. In the fall it had been bright and fleshy, but by the time it was done blooming it was pale and wilted. I finally had to throw it away because it was clear it was no longer viable. But before it started wilting, one segment fell off, so I decided to stick it in the soil to root. Amazingly, that lone segment looks as good as ever, and now has new growth.

    • Interesting experiments! You might want to try repotting the old specimens you prune back. I think that would help in the long term.

      • Luke Pacholski

        I last repotted that particular plant 6 years ago, although prior to that it probably hadn’t been repotted for 10-15 years. We’ll see…it’s doing so well at the moment I’m inclined to not touch it for now.

  15. I’ve had enough of the Christmas snow already and it’s starting to clear up here with a touch of sunshine today, I am looking forward to a 2018 blossom with some fresh plants which are keeping me busy preparing. I hate to say it, but out with the old and in with the new.

    I try to maintain anything illustrated like the pictures above, but sometimes it’s just too much to handle.

    • Good heavens, already tired of snow! Where I live, there’ll be “Christmas snow” until well into April! And there’s been snow on the ground since late November. That’s close to 6 months of snow… and it doesn’t bother me at all.

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