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GardenSMART :: The Holiday Cactus

The Holiday Cactus

By Therese Ciesinski, GardenSMART

Plants that flower during the winter are prized, and those that bloom around the holidays are especially welcome. A Christmas cactus in lush, colorful December bloom is a living tradition that gardeners look forward to each year. So much so that many of these long-lived plants are passed through families and generations.

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Thanksgiving cactus, Schlumbergera truncata, photograph by Therese Ciesinski.

But if you've ever had a Christmas cactus that bloomed early – before Thanksgiving – you might have wondered how the plant got the date wrong. Or perhaps you thought you did something wrong: gave it too much or too little light, water, or fertilizer. But the cactus knows what time it is. It's possible that your Christmas cactus is really a Thanksgiving cactus.

There are actually three blooming "holiday" cacti: Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Easter. Thanksgiving cacti bloom mid-autumn, usually a few weeks before Thanksgiving. Christmas cactus bloom about a month later, and Easter cactus bloom in March and April. Because of their similar appearance and close bloom times, even the nurseries selling them can confuse Thanksgiving and Christmas cacti with each other.

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Christmas cactus, Schlumbergera bridgesii, photograph courtesy of Wayne Ray, Wikimedia Commons.

These cacti are different species, but all three belong to the family Schlumbergera. They are epiphytes – they live on trees in their native Brazil. Besides bloom time, the differences between the three boil down to leaf and flower shape.

So, do you have a Thanksgiving, Christmas or Easter cactus? Here are some clues:

Leaf shape: This is the primary way to tell the difference. Thanksgiving cacti (Schlumbergera truncata) have jagged edges to the leaves, which are actually flattened stems. Christmas cacti's (Schlumbergera bridgesii) leaf segments are less pointed and more rounded.

The leaves on an Easter cactus (Schlumbergera gaertneri, also called Rhipsalidopsis gaertnerrii), are scalloped, similar to those on a Christmas cactus, but have pronounced hair-like bristles on the ends of the leaves. The other two types do not.

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Graphic courtesy of Iowa State University.

Flower shape: The flowers of the Thanksgiving cactus have an asymmetrical shape and extend horizontally. They can be white, pink, peach, red, or yellow. Christmas cacti flower in the same colors, but have symmetrical flowers that hang down. Flowers on the Easter cactus can be orange, red, pink, peach, or white, and are shaped like starbursts.

Whether you have a Thanksgiving, Christmas, or Easter cactus, the care requirements are similar:

Light: Bright shade, not full sun. They bloom better if they spend the summer and early fall outdoors, where the light is stronger. The plants need 12 to 24 hours of darkness and cool temperatures (60-68 degrees is best) for a number of weeks in order to set buds.

After their first bloom, Thanksgiving and Christmas cacti will often put forth a modest second bloom in early spring if kept in their preferred light and temperature conditions.

Water: Remember that these are cacti, and store water in their leaves.

Lean towards under- rather than overwatering. Let the top inch of soil go dry before watering, and use tepid, not cold, water. Overwatering is the surest way to kill one. If leaves on the cactus are floppy and limp, the roots could be rotting and fungus setting in.

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Easter cactus, Schlumbergera gaertneri, photograph by Andrey Korzun, Wikimedia Commons.

The Easter cactus doesn't grow as large as the others and is the most temperamental of the three. It drops leaf segments if it gets too much or too little water, and will sometimes refuse to bloom even in optimal conditions.

Care: Feed once a month with houseplant fertilizer during the growing season. Don't feed or repot when the plant is in flower. These cacti prefer to be root bound.

Problems: Dropped flower buds are quite common and can be due to too much sunlight or water, drafts, or temperatures that are too high. Too much sun will turn leaves red. When outdoors, slugs can eat the leaves.

Holiday cacti are non-toxic to pets and people.

Whether they bloom at Thanksgiving, Christmas, or Easter, these holiday cacti are lovely, long-lived additions to any indoor garden.


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