When you head to the plant nursery or garden center, you may find a cactus labeled as either Christmas cactus or Thanksgiving cactus. This confusion is partly due to the varying blooming times for these Schlumbergera cultivars, but it’s also because of the name’s meaning in different regions.
Christmas and Thanksgiving cacti are easy-to-grow houseplants that bloom anytime in the fall or winter. They are a great addition to hanging baskets or other containers, and come in a variety of colors such as red, pink, purple, lavender, peach, and orange.
They require very little care and are fairly low-maintenance, but they are prone to rot if kept too dry or overly damp, so be sure to give them a good repot every few years. They thrive in bright light but not direct sun and prefer cooler night temperatures to promote bud development.
Propagation for holiday cacti is simple and inexpensive, with stem cuttings taking about 5-6 days to form a callus before planting. Snip the ends of the stems with about 4 to 5 phylloclades (flat leaf segments), and root them in a pot of 60% tropical plant mix, with a small amount of perlite to improve drainage.
These cacti are native to Brazilian rainforests, where they grow as epiphytes on tree branches without the benefit of soil. They do best in cool to moderate temperatures and long nights to promote bud development.
If you have trouble telling them apart, check the shape of their stem segments. The segments of a Thanksgiving cactus have sharp projections with two to four points, while those of a Christmas cactus are less spikey and more scalloped.
Look at the flower shapes too. The Christmas cactus’ flowers droop down and feature evenly spaced petals. The Thanksgiving cactus’ flowers are more horizontal and open up on the bottom.
The flowers of these cacti are generally tubular in shape and typically come in shades of pink, but they can also be found in shades of yellow or white. When the flowers open, a cluster of anthers will protrude from each blossom and can be pollinated by the pollen in their surrounding petals.
A Thanksgiving cactus will typically produce a single flush of flowers while the Christmas cactus may produce another smaller flush in spring. The Easter cactus, a member of the Rhipsalidopsis family, will usually have more distinct flowers that are larger and starburst in shape.
When they bloom, the anther will droop down from each flower and be tipped with pollen in the color of the flower. The pollen will be yellow in a Thanksgiving cactus bloom and pink in a Christmas cactus.
All three cacti will require a good repot every few years and they should be planted in a location that gets at least six weeks’ worth of 13-hour nighttime temperatures. They will bloom best after the daylight hours decrease in autumn, but they are not dependable or consistent bloomers, so you can’t count on them to always be at their most abundant in your garden.