Falling in love again (Christmas and Thanksgiving cacti)

Okay, I admit it--I'm fickle. I'm fascinated with a certain type of plant one month, and then I forget about it the next. When it comes to Christmas cacti and Thanksgiving cacti, it's a yearly event: each mid-winter I fall in love with them for their durability, and their beautiful, reliable blooms. Even when they're not in bloom, they are low-care, easy, durable houseplants.

There's been a secret rebellion going on among the so-called Holiday Cacti (sometimes called Zygocacti or winter cacti, especially by folks in the Southern Hemisphere, where the plants bloom in THEIR winter, which does not coincide with Christmas (their summer), and/or where they don't celebrate Thanksgiving). In any case, there has been a demographic shift: nearly all plants sold in the US, Canada, and Europe as Christmas cacti really are Thanksgiving cacti in disguise. Okay, not in disguise, but in bloom. I'm attaching a pic of one of mine in bloom in my living room.

It's absolutely nothing to fret over, or obsess over--it's merely a matter of marketing and timing. Thanksgiving cacti (the ones with the rubbery appendages or points along the leaf edges) bloom earlier than Christmas cacti (the ones with the smooth, rounded stem segments). That means it's easier to sell a Thanksgiving cactus that's blooming just prior to Christmas than it is to sell a Christmas cactus that won't be in bloom until a bit AFTER Christmas. Plus, Thanksgiving cacti are a bit more durable when it comes to shipping and handling. All of this adds up to a population shift: nearly everything referred to as a "Christmas cactus" really is a Thanksgiving cactus. No worries, though, they're both great and both want the same care.

Just give them very bright indirect light; some morning sun is okay. They bloom in response to long nights/short days, so they bloom in winter. If you live in a cold winter/warm summer area, you can put your plant outside in shade in early summer when the weather has settled, and leave it there until frost seriously threatens. By then your plant will most likely be loaded with flower buds due to the cool, long nights and short days. If you can't, or would rather not, put your plant outside, just give them the coolest spot in your home and give them a spot with as LITTLE artificial light after sunset as possible. As long as they can sense that the nights are long and the days are short, they'll bloom for you. I grow most of mine indoors year round, and even here in warm Phoenix they bloom reliably each winter indoors. Again, remember to give them as little artificial light as possible after sunset.

Thanksgiving and Christmas cacti (Schlumbera, botanically speaking) are easy to propagate from stem cuttings. Some folks like to root them in soil, others (me included) prefer water. The new roots form at the bottom of a stem segment. I've started several plants from a single segment--just keep the bottom (only) half in water and it will root in a few weeks. When the roots are a few inches long, plant it in a small pot of potting soil, and voila! A new plant! Sometimes you'll even notice small air roots forming on the stems of a plant itself.

The red flowering types are the most vigorous and durable--it's best to start with those stalwarts. Pinks, whites, and magentas are next in terms of vigor. The new yellow flowered types are the least vigorous, so save those for after you have experience. The more yellow in a plant's heritage, the more finicky it will be (so things like apricot, caramel, and orange are fussier in general than reds and whites). None is particularly fussy, but just make a note that red is the most durable.

Most Schlumbergera trace their heritage to the jungles of Brazil and Argentina, although early on in their domestication they were cross-hybridizing and labels were mixed up, so they have an interesting, obscure heritage.

If you're looking for a plant that stays green all year, can get quite dry between waterings, and that blooms each mid-winter with a taste of the tropics, then give a Christmas or Thanksgiving cactus a try. If you purchase one in bloom, it may drop its buds due to being moved, but put it where you want it and you'll have blooms each winter, like clockwork. Give them a try and let me know what you think.

Happy gardening indoors and out,
Grant (feel free to friend me here on Garden-share, and on Facebook and then send me a message--I can't get enough plant chat)

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Tags: Christmas cactus, Schlumbergera, Thanksgiving cactus, Winter cactus, Zygocactus


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Comment by Grant, Scottsdale,Arizona Zone 9 on December 27, 2011 at 7:37am

Hiya Priscilla and all, thanks!  Congrats on your new cactus too.  I've picked up a couple of new small ones this season as usual, oink oink oink.  :)  I've had the one in the pic for six years now.  It was just a casual purchase, in a 4 inch pot.  It's done really well as have most of the others.  Many of those are just now budding up for me.  New Year's cacti?  LOL.  Thanks for commenting--great success with yours! 

Comment by Priscilla Bryant, zn5 IL on December 26, 2011 at 7:27pm

Hi Grant! Nevernknew there were Thanksgiving Cactus! Oh well, picked up a 'Christmas cactus while shoppingfor decorations. No blooms yet, but thanks to your info, now I know what to do to help it bloom. Yours is lovely! How long have you had the one pictured?

Comment by Grant, Scottsdale,Arizona Zone 9 on December 25, 2011 at 4:52pm

Oops, I forgot to say, yes, I have an Easter cactus too.  I got it last spring so this is my first.  It's making a ton of growth right now, early winter, so I'm hoping it will bloom in spring.  If not, off to the compost pile with it, LOL, but so far so good.  Take care all!

Comment by Grant, Scottsdale,Arizona Zone 9 on December 23, 2011 at 8:27am

Really, Sharon??  Wow, that's a lot!  There has to be a reason why they are so expensive and hard to find.  I hope it's not because they're hard to grow, LOL!  Thanks, I'll go take a look (to SEE, not to BID, lol)!

Comment by Sharon Howell z7NC on December 23, 2011 at 8:22am

Grant, I saw an schlum opun on ebay for 199.00

Comment by Grant, Scottsdale,Arizona Zone 9 on December 23, 2011 at 7:59am

Thanks for the comments, all.  Good luck with your plants and cuttings.  This is the time of year when I really DO fall in love with them all over again.  Catherine, I think you've got it down perfectly:  they've been and continue to be Christmas cactus for you all, LOL.  Same is true for most of Europe of course.  Folks in the US and Canada are dealing with the Thanksgiving cactus replacing the Christmas cactus as a Christmas cactus, LOL.  In any case, and in any climate, they're sure great plants.  Thanks for the chuckle, and for the nice comments.  I'm excited to see roots on my furry Schlumbergera opuntioides.  I hope it becomes a nice plant some day!  All the best!

Comment by Lyn - Sydney on December 22, 2011 at 3:36pm
Grant, thanks for all that lovely info on Christmas/Thanksgiving/Zygo Cacti, very informative. Plus love the photo above, beautiful colour! My baby ones have taken root in soil, but I shall attempt to strike some in water.
Really appreciate your input on this subject.
Comment by Sharon Howell z7NC on December 22, 2011 at 3:33pm

he!he! Catherine you are so right. Must be called Thanksgiving cactus only in the US.

Comment by Sharon Howell z7NC on December 22, 2011 at 3:31pm

Grant, around here they cover their butts by calling them Holiday Cactus. My Aspen is not doing well at all. It is shriveling.

Do you have Easter cactus? I love them also, entirely different shaped flower.

Comment by Catherine Cronin (Ireland) on December 22, 2011 at 3:13pm

But Grant, how can we have Thanksgiving Cacti here, when we do not celebrate Thanksgiving? So to us over here they have always been Christmas Cacti......LOL!

Explain that !!! :)

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