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The Holiday Cactus Confusion

Updated: Dec 7, 2019

The Christmas cactus is a well-known houseplant prized for its bright and prolific blooms during the winter. However, did you know two other holiday cactus varieties often get mistaken for Christmas cactus? The Thanksgiving and Easter cactus look incredibly similar. In fact, they are frequently mislabeled at garden stores and sometimes swapped, with the Thanksgiving cactus labeled as Christmas cactus. Do you know which one you have?

Let’s look at the similarities. They are all members of the leaf cacti group. The long, flat, dark-green, leaf-like pads are actually stems, and they grow in large overflowing bunches. Flowers bloom from the stem tips or notches along the stem. The flowers are classically fuchsia-pink; however, current hybrids come in white, purple, yellow, and red. Christmas cactus (Schlumbergera bridgesii), Thanksgiving cactus (Schlumbergera truncata), and Easter cactus (Schlumbergera gaerteri, previously Hatiora gaerteri) all produce abundant, vibrant flowers that last up to a month. Holiday cacti types live long lives. Some folks claim to have plants over 100 years old that have been passed on through generations of a family!

Christmas, Thanksgiving, or Easter?

The primary identification point between the three types is the shape of the stem edges, which many refer to as leaves. The stem edges of the Christmas cactus are flat, wide, with small indentations along the sides. The indentations are smooth and never jagged or toothed. There is a slight curve at the tip of each stem.

Like the Christmas cactus, the Thanksgiving cactus has wide, flat stem edges with indentations along the sides. Unlike the Christmas cactus, the indentations on the Thanksgiving cactus are jagged and form claw-like, spiky points. Each stem edge has two to four points on each side. Some people refer to the Thanksgiving cactus as the Claw cactus.

The Easter cactus has smooth stem edge indentations like the Christmas cactus, however, they are much smaller and less defined. At the end of each stem, the Easter cactus sports several short bristles. Neither the Christmas nor Thanksgiving cactus have this feature.

Flower Colors and Bloom Time

As is expected, based on the name, the Christmas cactus blooms in December. The flowers are classically red or white, giving them an even closer association with the Christmas holiday. Sometimes, the flowers are yellow. The flowers are symmetrical and droop downwards.

The Thanksgiving cactus blooms in November. The flowers are either pink, white, yellow, or red, and they grow asymmetrically. They stick out horizontally instead of drooping like Christmas cactus flowers.

Guess when the Easter cactus blooms? There's nothing quite like on-point names! The Spring blooms of the Easter cactus are deep purple, pink, or red and shaped like a star-burst.

Both the Christmas and Thanksgiving cacti have been known to bloom outside of their usual times, just to keep us all on our toes! The Easter cactus, on the other hand, sometimes doesn't bloom at all.

Caring for a Holiday Cactus

Luckily, even if they are identified incorrectly, all three holiday cacti require the same care. They are all sensitive to over-watering and should only be watered when the top one-inch of soil is dry. They like bright light but should never be put in direct sunlight.

To induce blooming, the Christmas and Thanksgiving cacti need six weeks of short days while the Easter cactus needs 8-12 weeks. Short days mean nights that are at least 14 hours long and cool to 50-55F. Flowers will not bud in temperatures higher than that or if there is too much light. Once the cactus blooms, it can be moved to a place where it will be enjoyed.

Now, do you know which cactus you have?

Blog by Jenny Dunklee, Senior Plant Expert, BloomCatch

Photo by Jerry Wang on Unsplash.

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