It’s November and your “Christmas” cactus is covered with blossoms. Some of the blossoms are starting to open. Why is it blooming when it’s not Christmas?

Christmas cacti are members of a group called leaf cacti and are a popular long-lived houseplant. They are easy to care for. They have been known to be passed from generation to generation and sometimes plants have lived for over 100 years. The plant bodies are flattened, and the leaves are actually the stems. The flowers grow from the notches in the stems or from the tips. These cacti were commercially labeled zygocactus originally, but that was abandoned years ago. Since the 1950s, they have been listed under Schlumbergera.

These cacti produce colorful, tubular blooms in shades of pink, lilac, white, reddish orange and yellow. The flowers last a long time. These cacti are epiphytic, which means they grow naturally in trees and on plants. They can be found in the rainforests of southeastern Brazil.

In the rainforest, these cacti derive their moisture and nutrients from the air and rain. Since they are a tropical plant, they prefer high humidity and do best in bright, unfiltered light in a home setting. Their soil should be kept relatively moist most of the year. But before I go any further, did you know that there is more than one type of cactus that has been grouped and perhaps mistakenly called the Christmas cactus?

For the sake of this podcast, let’s refer to this grouping of three cacti as holiday cactus, unless otherwise specifically noted. There are actually three types of cacti that have been called by the same name, perhaps incorrectly at times:

  • Christmas Cactus, Schlumbergera bridgesii.
  • Easter Cactus Hatiora gaertneri, Rhipsalidosis gaetneri.
  • Thanksgiving Cactus, Schlumbergera truncata.

Identification confusion between the Christmas and the Thanksgiving cactus occurs the most often. These two cacti look similar upon close examination.

They are often mislabeled by stores and sellers more than any other succulent — whether unintentionally or intentionally. Both bloom in the late fall or winter. All three of the holiday cacti are closely related and have very similar basic care needs.

While you may not care which cactus you may have purchased, it is always good to know the exact name of your succulent in order to provide the best care. Let’s talk about some of the differences between the three holiday cacti.

If you have a Christmas cactus in your home, look at it closely.

A Christmas cactus has wide and flat segments that are smaller and rounder than the other two cacti. The edges of the leaves have small indentations but lacks pointed teeth. They are more scalloped and rounded at the end or tip of each segment that are slightly curved but can almost look flat across. The stem edges are smooth and slightly notched but not toothed or jagged.

The Thanksgiving cactus has broad segmented leaves with serrated (jagged) edges on each side. The serrated edges form into points. There are two or four pointy teeth on each side. The teeth are soft and not sharp. These cacti have a distinctive claw shaped pointed projection at the end of the last segment that is slightly concave with a point on each side. Think of the Thanksgiving cactus as having outward pointed claws. Common names for this cactus are the crab claw or crab cactus.

The Easter cactus has flat segmented leaves, similar to the Christmas cactus. It has slight scallops on the edges, but the shape is more subtle than the Christmas cactus. Their indents on the side of the leaf are more tear-drop in shape.

The Easter cactus has small bristles on the end of each leaf. There are no bristles on the ends of the Christmas or Thanksgiving cactus.

There are even some differences in the flowers of each of these holiday cacti.

The Christmas cactus blossoms are white or red and occasionally yellow and it usually blooms in December. The anthers are tipped with pollen that is pink to purplish to brown. The flowers are symmetrical and are evenly distributed on each flower tube. The flowers are pendulous and droop straight down. The plant shape is upright but, as it matures, the stems become pendent, hanging downward.

The Easter cactus blossoms are royal purple, red or pink and are brighter than the Christmas or Thanksgiving cactus. The flowers are star shaped, unlike the blossom shapes of the other holiday cactus. Easter cacti bloom between April and May.

The Thanksgiving cactus blossoms are pink, red, white or yellow. The pollen is yellow. The flowers are more symmetrical. The flowers extend horizontally from the tips of the stem segments. This plant grows in an upright direction.

Keep in mind that while the Christmas and Thanksgiving cacti typically bloom in the late fall and winter, these species can surprise you and bloom at other times of the year. The Easter cacti rarely bloom outside of its springtime blooming time. There may be years when the Easter cacti produce no blooms at all.

The Easter cactus is the smaller of the holiday cacti plants. It is considered more difficult to grow than the other two holiday cacti as it is more sensitive to over and underwatering. This cactus will shed its flattened stems (phylloclades) at the slightest drought, but it does not like to be overwatered. A soil moisture meter could be helpful in monitoring the soil of an Easter cactus.

If you close your eyes and run your hands over the edge of the cactus you can identify what cactus you have. If you feel a distinct point or claw, it’s a Thanksgiving cactus. If there is no point or claw and nothing on the flat end or tip of the leaf, it’s a Christmas cactus! If there are no points and no claws but there are bristles on the end of the leaf, it’s an Easter cactus.

Day length and temperature control the flowering of the cacti. They are considered a short-day plant. They will not bloom properly if exposed to artificial light at night. If temperatures are above 70 degrees, flowers may not develop. These cacti prefer night temperatures of 60-65 degrees with slightly warmer day temps. Bedrooms or basements may be ideal. Water every seven to 10 days.

Holiday cactus, by whatever name you choose to call them are easy to grow, bloom in beautifully bright colors and are sure to add cheer to whatever holiday or month that they choose to bloom!

Stacy Kalechitz is a master gardener with Penn State Extension. Penn State Extension is dedicated to delivering science-based information to people, businesses and communities. They partner with and are funded by federal, state and county governments. For more information on what they’re doing in Lackawanna County, visit extension.psu.edu/lackawanna-county.