Christmas Cactus Soil Won't Dry Out!

mithanderJune 30, 2011

I will try to give as much detail as possible to help describe what is happening. First, some background: our Christmas Cactus flowered for the first time this past winter! Though we've had it for a few years, this was the first year we were able to provide adequate lighting/temps in the winter months (on an indoor, but unheated, landing with a west window). It was beautiful but seemed to take such a toll on the plant that I will probably never let it flower again, if I am able to keep it alive.

Up until it flowered, I would water when the top of the soil was good and dry to the touch; this was happening about every three weeks in winter. Many of its flower buds dropped, but a few did remain on the plant long enough to open. After flowering, the plant dropped maybe 5% of its leaves and looked a bit shriveled. The biggest change was the soil; it just would not dry out & always remained damp to the touch (not soggy, just damp)! After a month or more it would just be looking shriveled so I would give in and water it anyway.

By April the landing where it sat had gotten hot, humid & very sunny, and the leaves had turned a very pale green and were drooping. I repotted into a mixture of half cactus soil half perlite and moved it into an air-conditioned room where it would have cooler temps and indirect sun instead of direct as days got longer. The color returned somewhat and the leaves got firmer but never back to 100%. The problem is that the soil STILL will not dry out! It can go three weeks and STILL the top layer feels damp to the touch, even though the leaves start to droop and feel flimsy again. (Watering seems to help the leaves firm up and regain some color, though this could be my imagination.) I repotted April 16 (& watered it), then watered on June 7 and again today, June 30. It has started to gain a bit of new growth since the repotting, and it doesn't really LOOK sick, but I can tell it's not 100% healthy. (Mostly it's the soil bothering me; I have had plants die from overwatering in the past but I have such a hard time holding off on watering until the soil dries when the plant seems to be begging for it! Should I just be ignoring the drooping and waiting for the soil to dry?)

A note: it has always been used to being in a large pot with at least a four-inch radius from the plant stem to the rim of the pot. The pot I just put it into was about three inches deeper than its old pot; I bought this because when I repotted it a year previous, the roots were everywhere, curling up at the bottom. I was very disturbed when I repotted this year and saw the root system had shrunk considerably and wasn't even filling the pot, nothing like it had been the previous time I repotted it. If anything I should have put it in a smaller pot but didn't have one available.

Why this sudden change in the soil after the flowering, and what can I do about it? If the pot is the problem, can I repot a second time so soon without damaging the plant? I did have several leaves fall off when I repotted which are now in their own small pot and growing like crazy. If I need to repot, what size pot is recommended (how much space should the roots have; how much distance from stem to rim)? Could it be due to something else? I have noticed many small flies (gnat-sized) living in the pot and running all over the plant; could these be harming it? (It picked them up when it sat next to our pitcher plant, which attracts these flies.)

Thank you for taking the time to read my long story, and thanks in advance for any help you can provide. It will be much appreciated!

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pirate_girl(Zone7 NYC)

Hi Mithander,

Sorry, there's so much going on w/ this plant. Fungus gnats are generally indicators of too much watering.

These plants are jungle cacti, not arid cacti, so they do need water w/ reasonable frequency & are designed to tolerate the extreme heat of the tropics. (They originally hail from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil which is where I grew up, so I know they have rainy season in January & that it gets VERY hot.) But that said, they need fast draining mix 'cause their roots can rot quite easily.

Yes, flowering is a lot of work for the plant, but generally one withholds water for one month after flowering & then the plant slowly starts to come back. Usually mine start putting on new growth again in March or April & I resume a regular watering schedule.

Maybe the soil you used had wetting agents in it? If you still have the package maybe read the list of ingredients.

At any rate, soil that's too wet & then a a plant moved to a pot that's too big combine to make for conditions for rot. Also putting it into a cooler room combined w/ damp soil can also lead to serious rot & root rot (that's why you have fewer roots).

These plants normally grow up in the crotches of trees w/very little mix & just whatever leaf debris & animal wastes happen to drop on them. Their natural habitat gets lots of rain, sometimes frequent rain (depending on the season).

Sorry, but if a plant stays too wet, the last thing to do is water it more. Does the pot still have drainage holes? 'cause this is in part a bad drainage problem.

I'd put it back into the smaller pot, into a mix of 1/2 African violet soil & half perlite or pumice. I'd smell the roots for rot & then sprinkle ordinary cinnamon (like you use for baking, actual to prevent rot) on the roots & then shake them off & pot up as above.

I'd put the newly repotted plant into a position of bright, indirect light & then please leave the plant alone.

These plants thrive w/ benign neglect & when healthy, a bit of fertilizer. They tend not to do well when fussed over. I realize you're trying to help the plant, but you're killing it w/ kindness & not resolving the basic problem which sounds to be bad mix, compounded by too much water & then maybe also cold, air conditioned air.

While you wait for it to recover you can check out your other cuttings which you mentioned are growing well & also read lots of Christmas Cactus posts here at C&S. Good luck!

    Bookmark   June 30, 2011 at 11:25AM
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greenman28 NorCal 7b/8a

Pirate girl offers some good tips on the culture of this plant.

I think, most importantly, you need to change out the current peat-based soil mix.
Because these are jungle cacti, growing in the crooks of trees in various leaf debris,
I have the most success growing them in a mix that is mostly bark - Orchid Bark, fine-grade.
You can grow Christmas Cactus in pure bark, or you can add perlite, pumice, even a small amount
of bagged soil - I would use Orchid Mix because of its bark content, but in the past I have
used African Violet mix, as well. I don't mean to contradict Pirate girl in any way.....
As they say, There's more than one way to skin a cat.

Good luck, and let us know how it goes.


    Bookmark   June 30, 2011 at 12:31PM
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Thank you both for the great suggestions. Your replies were very prompt, unfortunately the email notifications weren't working and I didn't think to check back to the actual page until September! Anyway, at that time I moved the plant back to an even smaller pot than before, rinsing the roots well and sprinkling them with cinnamon before potting them in a mixture of Orchid Mix and perlite. I moved it closer to a sunny window and we kept it in the living room through the winter (so it didn't have the proper lighting to flower again). The plant perked up within a few weeks, with healthy green leaves again, and no more gnats! Thanks so much for your help, I will always be potting my Christmas Cacti in Orchid Mix/perlite from now on! And another happy note, the cuttings from leaves that fell when I first repotted it were doing so well that they flowered this winter!

    Bookmark   March 9, 2012 at 10:48AM
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greenman28 NorCal 7b/8a

Welcome back! That's great news!

By the way, this is actually the Thanksgiving Cactus, Schlumbergera truncata.


    Bookmark   March 11, 2012 at 12:20PM
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pirate_girl(Zone7 NYC)

Hey Mith,

How nice to hear, thanks for coming back to let us know. I'm sure I speak for Josh as well, in saying it's always nice to hear when folks come back to thank us for our help & report their plants have improved for it. Good going.

That bloom color is pretty spectacular, the cat's not bad either ;>). Enjoy!

    Bookmark   March 11, 2012 at 7:11PM
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