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Thanksgiving Cactus or Christmas Cactus: What’s The Difference?

Thanksgiving Cactus or Christmas Cactus: What’s The Difference?

Christmas cacti are 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 are you sure you know which holiday cactus you have? They are often confused.

First, Which Cactus Do You Have?

Here’s a startling revelation: you may have a Thanksgiving cactus instead of a Christmas cactus! Although they look very similar, they’re two distinct plants.

Unfortunately, the confusion between these holiday succulents is perpetuated by the fact that they’re often mislabeled in garden centers. And since they both bloom in late fall or early winter it further adds to the confusion. But it’s 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. 

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.

Your Easter cactus will also show its blooms in March.

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.

Christmas cactus are known to bloom more than once a year. The second wave of blooms can appear between March and May.

Blooming in March?

We’re getting a lot of reports that readers are seeing their Christmas cacti and Thanksgiving cacti showing prolific blooms in March! It’s not uncommon for this to happen. In fact, don’t be surprised if you see blooms anywhere from March to May, although usually these blooms are more sparse than you’ll see around the holidays. The reason is that most holiday cacti bloom more than once a year. Check to see if you see any buds forming between the leaf sections. You can encourage them to bloom using the steps above, or just wait and see what happens!

Enjoy those colorful blooms —any time of year—and share your pictures with us on our Facebook page!

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  • Renota Drum says:

    Can I put my xmas cactus outside in April I live in NC

  • Renota Drum says:

    I live in NC can I put my xmas cactus outside in the last of April

  • Jane says:

    That was very interesting. I didn’t know which cactus I had until now

  • Julie K Veatch says:

    My 15 year old plant that has survived hurricanes has started to turn purplish-red and wilted. She is in the same location on my back deck as she has been for years…don’t know what to do!M

  • vivian gerard says:

    my thankgiving was sitting in water for a while i dumped out the water should i throw it out it is looking better

    • Susan Higgins says:

      Hi Vivian, don’t throw it out! They’re very resilient, see if it bounces back. And you’ll have a story to tell!

  • Kristen VanDerburgh says:

    After a beautiful blooming at Thanksgiving, my cactus’ leaves have become very thin-like and have turned radish in color. I have grow-lights. Is this normal after a blooming?

  • Ginger says:

    I have had my Christmas cactus 13 years. Was a cutting from my mother in laws plant. Was just a sprig! Moved from one place to another. Welll- Merry Christmas to me- ITS BLOOMING! So excited!

  • Ginger says:

    I have had my Christmas cactus 13 years. Was a cutting from my mother in laws plant. Was just a sprig! Moved from one place to another. Had someone watch it for awhile when I was traveling for a couple months- she nearly killed it. Welllllll- Merry Christmas to me- ITS BLOOMING! So excited!

  • Cindy says:

    My old farmer friend told me to put it outside in early spring under a bush. Bring it in early fall. It works every year. Beautiful blooms. Mine is about seven years old.

  • barbara says:

    Mine were in a north/east window and did not do that well. I moved them to a southern window and they are so big I have had to put them in larger containers and they are blooming like crazy! Also, I never put them anywhere dark for weeks. Just consistent southern light!

  • Susan says:

    Ok. Since nobody is answering, I’m a greenhouse grower from way back and houseplant enthusiast since childhood. All of these plants prefer to be a bit pot bound. If and when you do change pots use cactus soil because it’s a lighter media. Only water at most once a week and when you start to see buds coming don’t let it dry out completely until it’s finished blooming. These plants really do very well when neglected. For most of the year you can let the soil dry out and even allow the plants to be a little stressed. Always remember most plants do not like to swim. Bright indirect light which means in an East or north window or a few feet away from a south or west facing window. (If it’s sunrise you see your window is East, sunset it’s west. Don’t worry nobody ever thinks of it that way.) If you leave the plants in the same place year round you really don’t need to worry about the light the plants adjust. For the people they haven’t bloomed for let them dry out a bit more. A stressed plant is a flowering plant it’s a natural reaction to wanting to propagate. Very easy, long lasting and pretty plants.

    • Susan Higgins says:

      Thank you, Susan, we appreciate your comments and sharing your knowledge, it’s very helpful! Our apologies for not responding sooner, we’ve been short-staffed and are currently catching up.

  • Virginia Phillips says:

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

  • Jena says:

    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.

    • Susan Higgins says:

      Hi Jena, it’s probably not chilly enough. They bloom when they’re a bit stressed. Have you tried the tips in our article?

  • Mary wood says:

    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?

    • Susan Higgins says:

      Hi Mary wood: We found this information for you: “Christmas and Thanksgiving cacti require bright light during fall and winter, but too much direct light during the summer months may be the reason for the leaves turning purple on edges. Moving the plant to a more appropriate location may prevent sunburn and solve the problem. Be sure the location is away from open doors and drafty windows. Similarly, avoid hot, dry areas such as near a fireplace or heating vent.”

  • Deb says:

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

  • Bev Andrews says:

    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.

  • Barbara says:

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

  • nancy says:

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

  • Erma Cribbs says:

    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.

  • Star says:

    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.

  • Pam Bender says:

    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!

  • Debby says:

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

  • Sharon S says:

    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?

  • Teresa sammartino says:

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

  • Chelsea says:

    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!

  • Carolyn says:

    How much water & when?

  • Chris French says:

    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!

  • Sharon says:

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

  • Gregoria says:

    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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