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Christmas Cactus or Thanksgiving Cactus—Which is Which?

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Christmas Cactus or Thanksgiving Cactus—Which is Which?

Around this time of year, many of our readers and social media followers share their pictures of their Christmas cacti. They’re such beautiful plants when they flower and we often hear that cuttings have been passed down from generation to generation, often still thriving after decades.

But you may be surprised to learn you have a Thanksgiving cactus instead of a Christmas cactus. Although they look very similar, they’re two distinct plants.

Unfortunately, the confusion between these two holiday succulents is perpetuated by the fact that they’re often mislabeled in garden centers. And since they both bloom in late fall or winter it further adds to the confusion. It’s nice to know which one you truly have. Here’s how to tell them apart:

Thanksgiving Cactus (Schlumbergera truncata)

Leaves: You can tell the Thanksgiving cactus apart from the Christmas cactus by the shape of its leaves. The leaf segments, called “phylloclades,” are serrated or “toothed,” with pointy spines; with 2-4 on each side.

This is why these succulents are referred to as “Crab Claw Cactus.” The end of the last segment is slightly concave with a point on each side.

The leaves on the Thanksgiving cactus are “toothed.”

Flowers: Flowers of the Thanksgiving cactus are produced from the tips, or from where the leaf segments join. They resemble a long tube, appearing as if a flower within a flower.

They come in a range of colors, mostly pastels, including red, pink, peach, purple, orange, or white, and typically bloom in Thanksgiving. But don’t be surprised if you see blooms between March and May.

The blooms on a Thanksgiving cactus come in many colors, with yellow pollen-bearing anthers.

Also, look at the pollen-bearing anthers—Thanksgiving cactus anthers are yellow, while Christmas cactus anthers are pink to purplish-brown.

Christmas Cactus (Schlumbergera bridgesii)

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

Flowers: The flowers of the Christmas cactus are usually white or pink and bloom in December. But don’t be surprised if you also see blooms between March and May on these plants.

Easter Cactus?

Believe it or not, there’s also an Easter cactus (Hatiora gaertneri), which blooms in … you guessed it—spring! These succulents have leaves with small bristles and a thick ridge on one side.

The flowers have more of a star-shape. They’re native to the natural non-tropical forests of Brazil. Caution, though, when watering as this cactus is much more sensitive to over- or under-watering.

Easter cactus

Read: Tips to Care for your Christmas Cactus and Poinsettias

Getting Your Holiday Cacti to Bloom

If you’re hoping to get blooms in time for Thanksgiving or Christmas, you’ll need to begin temperature treatments several weeks before. Your plant will need 12 to 14 hours of total darkness, along with cool nighttime temperatures of 60-65 F for about 3—4 weeks in order for buds to form.

One way to do this is to place the plant in a dark closet from 6 p.m. to 8 a.m. Or, you can cover the plant with a large paper bag in the same timeframe. Once you see buds, you can resume normal lighting, but keep the plants cool.

If you keep the plant in a continuously cool room (around 50—60º F) in September and October, chances are excellent that it will produce flowers, although you’ll notice growth will be slower. If temps are too cool, you’ll find that the buds may drop off.  So it’s a bit of a balancing act.

Enjoy those colorful blooms and share your pictures with us on our Facebook page!

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1 Virginia Phillips { 11.20.19 at 3:45 pm }

How can I share this. It’s so informative.

2 Jena { 11.20.19 at 2:35 pm }

I’ve had a Christmas cactus for 3 years and it has NEVER bloomed. What am I doing wrong? It’s been growing just fine though.

3 Mary wood { 11.20.19 at 9:00 am }

I have a cactus plant for over 40 yrs. It blooms twice a year. I just noticed the leaves turning a reddish color. Never saw this before. It is blooming now. Why would the leaves turning color?

4 Deb { 11.19.19 at 6:24 pm }

Do they do better in a pot that is root bound or a bigger pot?

5 Bev Andrews { 11.19.19 at 5:22 pm }

Well my “Christmas Cactus” appears to have Thanksgiving leaves but the flowers are a pinkish red and the anthers are pink. It came from three small clippings many years ago. It sits in the same spot year round. I give it Miracle Grow once a month and it blooms 4-5 times from before Thanksgiving until maybe Easter. I must be doing something right but then my friends tell me I have a green thumb with all my plants.

6 Barbara { 11.19.19 at 4:01 pm }

I water mine from the top stay in house all year bloom several times a year full of flowers now nospecial care

7 nancy { 11.19.19 at 6:19 am }

i have a Christmas cactus and it starts plum at thanksgiving time

8 Erma Cribbs { 11.18.19 at 11:19 pm }

My Christmas cactus is several cuttings from my son’s fiancee’ Nana’s plant. It has been outside since summer of 2018. It had a few blooms, not many, last Christmas. Lasted maybe a week or two.
Do I need to bring the plant inside during winter? I live in Fresno CA (San Joaquin valley) some nights get to freezing or near freezing. Plant sits under covered patio and against outside wall of house facing North. Any help would be appreciated.

9 Star { 11.18.19 at 10:43 pm }

I sit my out every on the porch every summer and bring it in before it gets to cold, by the time i am bringing it in it has buds forming, nothing special in the way of caring for it.It just keeps on blooming a long time. I also just pour the water on it from the top, don”t seem to hurt it.

10 Pam Bender { 11.18.19 at 2:18 pm }

I just stole pieces of the cacti from my beauty shop. Don’t do anything special for them. Water when I water and feed other plants. Didn’t even know about putting the in dark! It now I know they are Thanksgiving ones. Blooms all over mine now. Setting in window!

11 Debby { 11.18.19 at 11:11 am }

Always water from the bottom, I just sit mine in the kitchen sink for awhile.

12 Sharon S { 11.18.19 at 8:51 am }

I have a very old 100years+ Christmas Cactus that blooms every year. But any of the plants I have started from cuttings have never bloomed. They are big and beautiful but will now bloom. Are they sterile?

13 Teresa sammartino { 11.18.19 at 4:06 am }

Is it possible to show a side by side picture of all 3 together with names. Please and thank you 😊

14 Chelsea { 11.18.19 at 2:29 am }

My Easter cactus thrives though I’m not sure if she’ll bloom this coming spring yet, but every time I get a Thanksgiving or Christmas cactus, it dies off. I use succulent/cacti potting soil and water that’s been purified or left to sit for days so the chemicals dissipate. Love these finicky plants though!

15 Carolyn { 11.17.19 at 8:19 pm }

How much water & when?

16 Chris French { 11.16.19 at 11:10 pm }

One error. Schlumbergera bridgesii was an error, and was corrected back to schlumbergera buckleyi way back in 1964… perpetuating this error continues the misinformation. Thanks!

17 Sharon { 11.16.19 at 9:01 pm }

How often should any of these get water, and how much

18 Gregoria { 11.16.19 at 8:31 pm }

Mine tend to bloom, it seems like, whenever they want! I didn’t know about the darkness and temperature though.
They get do neglected but still come through for me.

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