The Subtle Differences Between Holiday Cacti
Is your Christmas cactus blooming in November? You probably have a Thanksgiving cactus! Yes, there are multiple holiday cacti (including an Easter cactus). Here’s the difference—plus, tips on how to care for your holiday cactus to keep it blooming.
What’s the Difference Between the Christmas Cactus and Thanksgiving Cactus?
Christmas cactus (Schlumbergera bridgesii) is the long-lived plant our grandmothers grew. I have a plant that came from one my mother-in-law grew from a cutting she received over 70 years ago! They are the ultimate pass-along plant since they are so easy to root. Just pinch off a “Y” shaped piece from one of the branches and stick it in a pot of sterile soil or vermiculite. It will root in no time.
Thanksgiving cactus (Schlumbergera truncata) typically blooms between mid-November and late December, sometimes through January. Its leaf segments are square shaped with pointed hooks on one end and along the sides like pincers, giving rise to its common name “crab cactus.” It is native to Brazil, where its 2 to 3 inch long, satiny flowers are pollinated by hummingbirds.
The Easter cactus (Rhipsalidopsis gaertneri) blooms in the spring and sometimes again in the fall around Halloween. Its flaring, trumpet-shaped flowers have pointy pink or red petals.
Many of the plants available for sale are hybrid crosses of Christmas and Thanksgiving cacti (Schlumbergera x buckleyi) that come in a rainbow of exotic colors including orange, purple, yellow, red, pink, white, and two-tones.
More Ways to Tell a Christmas Cactus from a Thanksgiving Cactus
Look at their bloom color and the way the flower blooms:
- The Christmas cactus has hanging flowers in shades of magenta and blooms, of course, near Christmas. The range of flowering is late November through early February.
- The Thanksgiving cactus has flowers that face outwards and the plant comes in a wide range of colors. This plant blooms nearer to Thanksgiving than the Christmas cactus. It can start flowering in very late October or in November.
They also have different stems:
- The true Christmas cactus has a flattened stem segments with smooth, scalloped edges.
- The Thanksgiving cactus has a very toothy stem with two to four pointed teeth.
- While the Christmas cactus stems hang down like a pendent, the Thanksgiving cactus has stems that grow upright at first and then arch.
Most nurseries and stores actually sell the Thanksgiving cactus (not Christmas cactus) because it blooms around American Thanksgiving. Additionally, the Christmas cactus is more difficult to ship as the stems are more fragile and often break.
Caring For Your Holiday Cactus
The holiday cactus is not your typical cactus. We are all familiar with the desert cactus but the holiday plant is a forest cactus—an epiphyte that lives in decomposing leaf litter found in the forks and on the branches of trees in tropical rain forests of South America.
- The conditions in our houses are nothing like their native rainforest homes, but still they do fine in normal household temperatures of 65° to 70°F, with a drop at night to 55° to 60°F. They will need protection when temperatures drop below 40°F.
- They like their forest floor, so give these cacti acidic, well-draining soils. Use a cactus mix and add perlite, vermiculite, and orchid bark.
- They like bright light but not direct sun; an east or west window is perfect. If the leaves turn yellow it means they are getting too much light. If put outdoors in the warmer months, keep them under a shade tree or patio. Not in full sun.
- Let the plants dry out between waterings by watering them when the top 2 inches of the soil feels dry. Do not over water; this is the number one reason for their demise in our homes. Neglect is better than over watering! You could get a hydrometer to help you know when to water. Don’t let them sit in water because if they get too waterlogged they will rot!
- Misting the plants frequently helps increase humidity.
- Optional: Fertilize them with an all-purpose fertilizer such as a Miracle Grow Tomato water-soluble fertilizer (1 tablespoon to a gallon of non-chlorinated water). Feed 2 times a month while the plant is actively growing (usually spring and summer).
How to Keep Holiday Cactus Blooming
The keys to getting your holiday cactus to blossom are short days and cool nights. They need 13 hours of darkness and nights at 50° to 55°F for at least 1 to 2 months before they will set buds. I put some of my plants outside all summer and wait until the nights start to drop below 50°F before bringing them in for the fall and winter. They usually bud right up and start to bloom after that. The plants that grow in my kitchen get no special treatment and they blossom just as well. Go figure!
The plants flower best when slightly potbound so only repot them if they are really crowded. Unlike many holiday plants, they are non-toxic to cats and dogs, so don’t be afraid to bring one home for the holidays!
Read more about plant care tips on our Christmas Cactus Growing Guide.