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

24 thoughts on “Shriveled “Leaves” Mean Your Holiday Cactus is In Trouble

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

      • 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.

  3. 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 .

  4. 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!

  5. 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!

  6. 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.

  7. Lori

    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.

    • 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.

  8. 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.

  9. sarah

    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.

      • Sarah

        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!

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