There’s a classic Christmas movie from the 1970s that begins with a Great Depression-era mom marveling at her blooming Christmas cactus. Her daughter asks, “How can a plant know it’s Christmas?”
The Christmas cactus has long been a popular holiday plant and is still popular today. But it’s not the only cacti with a connection to a holiday. There’s a chance that a prickly plant you think is a Christmas cactus is really another variety known as the Thanksgiving cactus—and neither should be confused with the Easter cactus. All three are named for the holiday season they are most likely to bloom during and have slight but distinct differences setting them apart.
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What Is a Thanksgiving Cactus?
You’ll often find blooming Thanksgiving cactus plants in stores during the fall season, sometimes even before Halloween. The most common botanical name for the Thanksgiving cactus is Schlumbergera truncata. The dark-green stems of this cactus are made up of segments called phylloclades. Each segment has three or four little points on the edges.
In places where American Thanksgiving isn’t celebrated, Thanksgiving cacti are sometimes called crab cacti. Flower colors range from white to pink to dark pink. Occasionally, they will have orange, peach or purple flowers. Older plants can form a big clump, often more than a foot tall and wide.
What Is a Christmas Cactus?
Traditionally, a Christmas cactus is either Schlumbergera bridgesii or a hybrid Schlumbergera x buckleyi . It’s similar in form and color to the Thanksgiving cactus, except its stem segments are more rounded and it often blooms slightly later, around Christmastime.
Flower colors range from white to pink and red. Both Christmas and Thanksgiving cacti are native to regions of Brazil where they are epiphytes, meaning they grow in the debris on trees, but don’t harm the trees.
What Is an Easter Cactus?
Another holiday cactus is Hatiora gaertneri, which is also from Brazil. It looks a lot like the Christmas and Thanksgiving cacti but the flowers are more star-shaped. A few years ago it was known as Rhipsalidopsis gaertneri, but botanists changed its name, as they sometimes do. Its stem segments are a duller green than the Thanksgiving and Christmas cactus and it blooms later in the spring. Flowers are usually red, pink or orange.
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Holiday Cactus Care
All holiday cacti require the same basic care.
Light and temperature
Holiday cacti grow best in indirect light and prefer cooler temperatures. East and north window exposures are ideal. They form flower buds in response to a combination of cooler nighttime temperatures and longer periods of darkness. Let your holiday cactus naturally form blooms in response to the conditions in your house, and it will likely bloom around the holiday time it’s named for.
Soil and watering
Grow your holiday cactus in a soil mix labeled for growing cacti and succulents. Choose a container that allows the water to drain out the bottom because these plants don’t like soggy soil. Water when the top inch or so of soil is dry. These plants don’t have deep roots so can be grown in wide, shallow containers.
The best time to fertilize your holiday cactus is a few months after it has finished blooming, which is generally late spring and summer. Use a general-purpose houseplant fertilizer.
Pests and diseases
Holiday cacti are not often bothered by pests or diseases. Indoors, it is possible for mealybugs, spider mites or scale insects to infect them. If you put your holiday cactus outside, check it occasionally for slugs.
Repotting and propagating
Holiday cacti don’t mind being a bit crowded in their container, so keep that in mind before deciding when to repot. They can grow happily for several years in the same container.
To propagate a holiday cactus, take stem cuttings in late spring or summer. Each cutting can be two or three stem segments. Allow them to air dry for a few days. Then dip the cuttings in a rooting hormone before putting them in soil to root. You can use the same type of soil you grow them in. Keep the cuttings moist until roots form.
Where To Buy Holiday Cacti
You’ll find holiday cacti in bloom in the floral departments of most grocery stores around Thanksgiving, Christmas and Easter. Look for plants with more buds than blooms so you can enjoy the flowers for longer.
If you are looking for a particular color or type of holiday cactus, you may have to purchase your plants from an online nursery, where they may be listed as zygocactus.