Several weeks ago, on an impulse, I bought what I thought was a Christmas cactus at a local grocery store. It was a beautiful little plant – very green, healthy, a perfect shape and not terribly expensive. I was excited about having something in full bloom to add to my Christmas decor. Well, I should have paid just a bit more attention to what I was buying. My Perfect for Christmas cactus has turned out to be a perfect Thanksgiving cactus. (Too bad we won’t be home for Thanksgiving.)
I’m sure that I am not the first to be fooled. With just a casual glance, all the three varieties of holiday cacti appear to be exactly the same, but closer study can reveal their differences. The most obvious difference among the three is the color and timing of the blooms. Thanksgiving cacti sport blooms in a variety of colors such as pink, orange, salmon and white. Their natural bloom cycle falls in November and early December, but like all holiday cacti, the bloom cycle can be manipulated. Christmas cacti bloom in January and into February. Their blossoms are purplish-red. Easter cacti, with their star- shaped flowers of reds, pinks, white and orange blooms, flower in early spring.
While blooms are an easy but sometimes unreliable way to differentiate among the three, checking a plant’s phylloclades, or leaflike stems, is the most accurate method. All three have subtle but identifiable differences. When buying your cactus, pay close attention to the outside edges of the leaves. A Thanksgiving cactus (Schlumbergera. truncata) will have very pointed, almost claw-like projections on the sides of the leaf. A Christmas cactus (Schlumbergera bridgesii), will have smooth, rounded edges in a teardrop formation flowing down the leaf. An Easter cactus (Rhipsalidopsis gaertneri) will also have rounded edges, but the gentle protrusions will appear in the middle.
Christmas, Thanksgiving and Easter cacti are all native to a remote, coastal area in the Brazilian rainforest. In their native habitat, just like orchids, they grow on trees, their array of springtime blooms cascading down in colorful plumes from branches high above. (Remember, they originate in the Southern Hemisphere so they are in the midst of spring while we are entering winter.) The microclimate they thrive in tends to be humid, although temperatures are relatively cool. It is usually a shaded, moist environment.
Regardless of which variety you have, the care requirements are similar. As potted plants, Holiday cacti are remarkably hardy and long-lived plants. Indoors they thrive in bright, but indirect light. Outdoors, place them in a sheltered space where they will not sit in direct, afternoon sun. Water them moderately, being careful not to overwater, which will lead to root rot. If they are not supporting blooms, plants can even safely go dry between waterings, Ideal night temperatures range from 55 to 65 degrees F. If you want to encourage buds to set, then place the plant where it will have 55 degree F nighttime temperatures and 13 to 15 hours of complete darkness.
If your cactus needs repotting, or if a little shaping is in order, the best time is immediately after blooming. For repotting use a mix that will drain well, such as one containing 60 - 80% potting soil and 20 - 40% perlite. For shaping, use a sharp clipper to snip stems cleanly at a healthy joint. If you’d like to propagate a new plant from the old, take a Y-shaped cutting with several joined segments on each arm of the Y. Let the cut end dry for a few days, then bury it about an inch deep in potting soil. Keep it moist but not soggy until it begins to root, usually two to three weeks. You can also place cuttings in warm water. Once their roots reach about two inches, plant them in the recommended potting mix. Fertilize monthly after repotting or pruning, stopping when buds begin to set.
While I was a little disappointed that my cactus wouldn’t be adding cheer to my Christmas table, I am relishing the boost it's giving to my days now. I guess my Thanksgiving cactus turned out to be just what I wanted.