Holiday Cacti: Thanksgiving cactus, Christmas cactus and Easter cactus

Photo by: Diane Daignault

By Lori Graham, Master Gardener

Holiday cacti are tough forgiving plants that are easy to care for once established. They store water in their stems making them very drought tolerant. Holiday cacti are not poisonous to humans, cats or dogs and many of us grow these as houseplants. The Christmas cactus still blooms each winter with its message of faith and hope.

Schlumbergera, a small genus of cactus with 6 accepted species, is found in the coastal mountains of south-eastern Brazil. This genus includes the Thanksgiving cactus (Schlumbergera truncata), and Christmas cactus (Schlumbergera bridgesii). Schlumbergera x buckleyi, by many considered the true Christmas cactus, is a hybrid between S. truncata x S. russelliana. The Easter cactus belongs to the genus Rhipalidopsis with the specific epithet gaertneri but is cared for in the same way.

Drawing by Jo Swartz

Thanksgiving cactus has jagged edged stem segments; these segments, called phylloclades, are serrated or toothed, with two to four pointy spines on each side.
Thanksgiving cacti are commonly sold around this time of year, as they are easier to ship to various locations.

Thanksgiving cactus: Photo by Lori Graham

The stem segments of the Christmas cactus have a more rounded, scalloped edge. The tip of each segment is slightly curved but can look almost straight across.

Christmas cactus – photo courtesy of Angela Sooknanan

I am providing growing tips from my own experiences with these plants.

• Watering – I bottom water my plants once a month. I place the plant pot (with holes in the bottom of the pot) in a large saucer of water then wait at least 30 min. Then I place the pot back into a drip tray and back to its location. Don’t over water. The leaves will go limp or fall off if the plant has been over-watered.
• Location – These plants like bright indirect light. You will know if the plant gets too much light as the leaves will start to turn a purple colour. This happens to mine more in the summer months. Should this happen move the plant farther away from the light source. Try a north or east-facing window, again not in direct sunlight.
• Fertilizer – I use fertilizer only in the growing season April to October.
• Blooms – I don’t have to do anything to mine to make them bloom. If under the right conditions the plant should bloom on its own. If you are having trouble getting the plant into bloom apparently giving them 14 hours of darkness is suppose to will help. Move it to a dark room or place a paper-bag over it.
• Transplanting – Theses plants like to have their roots crowded, so I transplant only if root bound. You will notice roots coming out of the bottom of the pot. You don’t have to transplant these plants often but if you do make sure to only go up one pot size. If plant is in the pot you purchased it in, example 4-inch pot, transplant to a 6-inch pot. Do not transplant when the plant is budding or going into bloom. I use regular potting soil made for houseplants.

Every year when my plants come into bloom it makes me smile to know these plants are happy and in a good place. Wishing you much success should you buy one of these plants.