A Blooming Cactus for Almost Every Holiday

christmas cactus blossomsIf Grandma gave you a cutting of her favorite Christmas cactus, you might want to learn to properly identify it as it could be one of three different holiday blooming cacti. Knowing the difference between them will help you give your plant proper care and keep it blooming year after year for up to six weeks at a time.

Because the name "Christmas Cactus" is so appealing -- those colorful, flowering potted plants seen in the stores in November -- were re-named by the garden trade. Actually, they are what is known as a Thanksgiving cactus (Schlumbergera truncata). In fact, there are three different blooming cacti that are named for a holiday: Thanksgiving, Christmas and Easter!

Unfortunately, the normal bloom time for a true Christmas cactus (Schlumbergera x buckleyi) is after Christmas and into the month of January. This cactus is not commonly available commercially and is rather rare. But if you have one from a cutting from grandma or a dear friend, you may be in luck.

Keeping your holidays straight

The Thanksgiving cactus has flowers which extend horizontally from the ends of its stems, appearing somewhat upright. A true Christmas cactus on the other hand has smaller, more symmetrical flowers that hang straight down from its stems and are more arched. Another difference is the Thanksgiving Cactus has stem segments that are pointed, while those of the Christmas Cactus are rounded.

One final and more obvious difference is that the pollen-bearing anthers of the Thanksgiving variety are yellow while the anthers of the Christmas cactus are brown. What both varieties of succulents have in common is tubular flowers that close at night and come in a wide range of colors including red, rose, purple, lavender, peach, orange, yellow, cream, and white.

The Thanksgiving cactus usually blooms from November into December, so the best specimens should be available for sale in November -- as the name might imply.

holiday cacti

Both Thanksgiving and Christmas cacti are tropical natives of the mountains of southern Brazil, where they live on tree branches in the rain forest. They like conditions similar to their native habitat:

  • Bright, but not direct sunlight
  • High humidity, moisture
  • Somewhat cool, steady temperature

Being cacti, both varieties tolerate indoor lighting conditions well, like a dim windowsill or even hanging out on a coffee table for limited periods.

The other variety of holiday cactus, the Easter Cactus (Rhipsalidopsos gaertneri or Hatiora gaertneri), is easy to identify. The flowers are more star-shaped and the scalloped stem segments have bristles. This cactus blooms once a year between March and May, and sporadically throughout the year. Unlike the other two holiday cacti, it is not a tropical plant, and as such, requires a different regimen of care.

Blooming cactus care during the holidays

A common mistake in the care of Thanksgiving and Christmas cacti is giving them too much light and heat and not enough water. They are used to dappled light (filtered through the rainforest canopy) and cannot tolerate direct sunlight. They are also accustomed to frequent watering in the lush rainforest.

In your home during the blooming season, keep the top layer of soil moist to the touch at all times. Provide weekly water, but be careful not to overwater or let water stand in the saucer under the pot. And be sure to keep the temperature steady -- above 55F with 68F being ideal. 

It’s also important to be wary of sudden changes in temperature such as blasts from heating ducts and sudden changes in location as these can all can cause flower buds to drop, which you definitely want to avoid!

christmas cactus buds

Whichever holiday variety of cacti you choose, just remember to treat it with a little care and it will brighten your surroundings not only during the holidays, but year-round! Stay tuned for an upcoming post on what to do with holiday plants during the off season.

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