Holiday Cactus Plant Bio: Podcast Ep#21
Updated: Jan 1
During the holidays, you will see brightly colored pink, red, and sometimes white, blooming plants with scallop-like stems. That means you are looking at either a Christmas Cactus, Thanksgiving Cactus, or an Easter Cactus! Most retailers commonly call all of them Christmas Cactus since they all look freakishly similar and they generally bloom around the same time.
Common Name- Botanical Name- Growth Differences:
Christmas Cactus- Schlumbergera bridgesii- scallop-like pad edges with fall/winter blooms
Thanksgiving Cactus- Schlumbergera truncata- tooth-like pad edges with fall/winter blooms
Easter Cactus- Hatiora gaertneri- rounded pad edges with early spring blooms
Formally names Rhipsalidopsis gaertneri, but reclassified to Hatiora gaertneri
Christmas Cactus and Thanksgiving Cactus look very similar, including their flower, buds and stems. The only major difference is their distinct edges. I will be referring to all of these as Holiday Cacti, to keep it simple.
***Go to FUN FACTS to learn about my experience with these guys***
Holiday Cacti like bright indirect light or dappled light. Here is the catch...these guys need to be placed in a cool, darker room in order to encourage blooming. So here is what you should be doing by season:
Spring/Summer- place in bright indirect light or dappled light
Fall/Winter- place in a room or area in your house that can gets at least 12 hours of darkness. Temperatures need to be consistently below 65 degrees F and even cooler at night. When you start to see plenty of flower buds, you can move it (carefully) back into a space with bright indirect light or dappled light.
These cacti like to stay evenly moist. Once the first inch or so of soil dries out, then you can water it again. There is another catch though...only follow those watering instructions in spring, summer, and while your cactus is blooming. Reduce the watering significantly so the soil almost dries out between watering. This helps prepare the cactus to form flower buds and also helps after your cactus flowers.
Holiday cacti thrive in high humidity environments. If you can place them near a humidifier, on top of pebble trays, or mist the plant, (and environment around it) frequently this would increase humidity.
You typically see the flowers in a range of red and pinks while sometimes running into white or coral blooms. Christmas Cactus and Thanksgiving Cactus have layered looking flower, while Easter Cactus have a Daisy looking flower but with pointed petals. To the left, you can see a Thanksgiving Cactus blooming. You can see tiers of petals (layered look) for the flower.
Once these guys start budding you want to avoid stressing them out. If the plant is stressed when budding, it could lose its flower buds. Stress can be caused by moving this plant around too much, placing it in a drafty window or door, or not providing the appropriate amount of water they need. There is potential for your Holiday Cacti to bloom again! It is rare and there is a drop in the number of flowers produced. But it is possible!
I usually say there isn't a right or wrong answer for fertilization. But since this plant needs more help blooming there are definitely certain fertilizers (and certain times to apply it) that can help with blooming.
The Complete Houseplant Survival Manual recommends fertilizing in spring and summer (every 2 weeks) and monthly in fall and winter, with either a balanced fertilizer or a high phosphorus plant food. Using a phosphorus focused fertilizer encourages flower production. They also mention to use a slightly reduced rate of fertilizer, rather than what the fertilizer packages recommend.
***To learn a bit more about the commonly used nutrients in fertilizer and how that can benefit your plants, check out the FUN FACT part of my Dieffenbachia Blog Post***
There are only a couple ways to do this...
1. Splitting the plant- this can only happen once you have a mature cactus, which could take years! Make sure you are doing this around early summer. You don't want to stress out any bud formation that may be happening if you split them too late in fall.
2. Stem cuttings- this is the easiest way to do it and the most common way of propagating these cacti. Cut a stem right before where a new pad is connected. Make sure you have at least 2-3 pads for your stem cutting and allow it to dry for a day. The next day, you can plant that stem in moist soil. In the image to the right, you can see some roots growing where those few stem pads meet. That would be a great place to cut!
Holiday Cacti are all part of the the Cactaceae Family.
Their natural growth habit is a hanging form once they mature and stems become longer. Lots of people love to use these in hanging baskets!
These guys are perfectly content being a little rootbound, so you shouldn't have to repot your Holiday Cacti for a while.
These cacti are considered Epiphytes in their native rainforest habitat in Brazil. This means they grow on the surface of other plants, similar to orchids.
Since these are Epiphytes they need very well-draining soil! A cactus soil or even an orchid soil works great!
These cacti are not poisonous to dogs or cats! That being said, I wouldn't let your pets chomp on these guys because it can still cause vomiting and diarrhea if eaten in mass quantities. But according the ASPCA, it isn't poisonous! Yay!!!
Did you notice the white spots and dots on the cactus pads in my pictures? That is just from hard water. That can easily be cleaned up with some neem oil, but since I didn't want to disrupt the blooming cycle, I will have to wait to clean it off until spring!
According to The Healing Power of Plants, Christmas Cactus remove "airborne toxins including formaldehyde and benzene"
Holiday Cacti can grow anywhere from 1'-2' tall and wide, or larger, in ideal environments!
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I've had one Christmas Cactus for about 2 years now and I recently bought one that was in bloom in the last month. I knew this plant could be difficult to produce blooms but I never realized the watering, lighting AND temperature had to change in order to encourage blooming. Honestly, the Midwest time and temperature change bodes well for Christmas Cactus! Depending what temperature you keep you house, and where you have it positioned, you may never have to move your plant!
I also learned that both of my Christmas Cactus are actually Thanksgiving Cactus based on the tooth-like stem structure they have. I currently have my older Thanksgiving Cactus in a bathroom with a North facing window. It gets plenty of humidity from the shower but potentially not enough light. I've had this Cactus in that spot for about a year and it has not rebloomed so far. Just as an experiment, I am going to move it into the basement now (in late fall) because it is much cooler and darker. With luck, this will encourage some blooms!
The Thanksgiving Cactus I recently bought is currently blooming and positioned just off of a South window. I will keep it there and will try moving it to the basement next fall in attempts to encourage blooms.
I killed a Christmas Cactus a few years ago because I underwatered it! At the time I assumed since it was a cactus, I didn't need to water it much. Obviously that was wrong and I learned my lesson!
Even if I can't get these guys to bloom again, it's okay! The structure of the plant is beautiful in itself so I am just happy to have these amongst my other houseplants! I'm not here to tell you I am perfect at taking care of every houseplant. But I am here to give you the honest truth and share my experience. Hopefully you learned a bit from this blog/podcast, as I did, while researching even deeper!
Always written with extreme plant passion!