Is your Christmas cactus an impostor?

A cactus, of all things, is one of those plants that have come to represent the holidays. But, my friends, it seems that there has been an insidious marketing campaign to confuse consumers. For the cactus you buy in the store labeled “Christmas cactus” is an impostor. It is, in fact, a Thanksgiving cactus.

Now this wouldn’t be such a big deal, except that there is such a thing as a “Christmas cactus” — but you won’t find one on store shelves.

Nay, I can’t even find one in garden catalogs.

It seems that, as the shopping and holiday seasons creep ever upward on the calendar, retailers have little love for a cactus that is actually programmed to bloom at Christmas. They need something that blooms earlier so that it can be on the store shelves as early as possible. (At this pace, breeders will need to develop and Independence Day cactus for the Christmas shopping season.)

Therefore, the Thanksgiving cactus has been rebranded as an impostor. We won’t even talk about the Easter cactus, which just totally feels left out of the family (and yes, there is such a thing).

Cultivars and crosses of Schlumbergera truncata are the Thanksgiving cacti that have been rebranded as Christmas cacti. They can be identified by their spiky stems and zygomorphic (now that’s a fancy word — it means that they have a two-sided, or bilateral, symmetry) flowers.

You’ll most commonly find them in pink colors, but you can now find them in yellowish colors. The flower shape often leads to its nickname: “Zygo cactus.”

S. buckleyi are the true Christmas cacti. They can be identified by their rounded stems and rounded (radial symmetry) flowers. They do have a similar growing form, but those in the know can tell the difference.

A true Christmas cactus (S. buckleyi).  Note the flower with radial symmetry and the rounded/scalloped edges of the segments.  
A Thanksgiving cactus (S. truncata).  Note the bilateral symmetry of the flower and the pointy edges of the segments.  










Holiday cactus care

 Whether you have a Thanksgiving or Christmas cactus (or an Easter one, for that matter), you take care of them the same way.

Now, to take care of them you have to realize that these are not desert cacti. These are rain forest cacti. Their native habitat is living in trees in Brazil, so you want to keep them in a very light, peaty soil mix. You’ll also want to let them dry slightly between watering, but don’t think that they like to live the life of dehydration — you do need to keep them watered.

Their flowering is dependent on day length and temperature. They will also bloom better if they have cooler temperatures, so keeping them in a cool area of the house is ideal.

Don’t be alarmed if they bloom at odd times through the year. When the combination of light and temperature is just right, the cacti will bloom. Mine sometimes bloom in June. This year, I had a “Halloween cactus.”

They are short-day plants (more accurately, they are long-night plants). For their flowers to begin forming, they need several weeks of long, uninterrupted night periods of at least 12 hours. This occurs naturally about mid-October, but you can delay flowering by using grow lights to lengthen the day.

If your cactus does not flower, you need to move it to a spot where it gets at least 12 hours of relative darkness to initiate blooms (keep away from indoor light sources or windows near outdoor lights). Hopefully, you’ll have lots of colorful blooms for Christmas.

And just for the record…an Easter cactus.  Note the large/wide segments and the difference in flowers.  

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