Thanksgiving Holiday Cactus Plant: Tips For Growing Thanksgiving Cactus
By: Bonnie L. Grant, Certified Urban Agriculturist
Holiday cacti bloom around the season for which they are named. Therefore, it comes as no surprise that the Thanksgiving cactus blooms around November. The Thanksgiving holiday cactus is an easy to grow interior plant. Both Christmas and Thanksgiving cacti are in the genus Schlumbergera and are native to the tropical forests of Brazil. They are attractive plants commonly sold and given as gifts around the holidays but are also easy to propagate from stem cuttings.
Read on for Thanksgiving holiday cactus information that will keep you growing and giving away these plants for a lifetime.
Thanksgiving Cactus Information
Schlumbergera truncata is the Thanksgiving cactus. It is called a leaf cactus but is not a true cactus. Rather it is an epiphyte, those plants which live on other plants. The leaves are broad and flat with slight serrations on the edges in the Thanksgiving vs. Christmas cactus, which has smoother edges. The flowers that appear in fall are similar to fuchsia blooms and come in hues of yellow, white, pink and red.
These plants are classed as Zygocactus, which some scholars call a misnomer, while others shout it from the roof tops. Whatever type of plant it is, the Thanksgiving holiday cactus is a proven winner, with blooms that last for 2 to 4 months and an easy-going nature. The only real problem with the plant is its need to be fooled in order to bloom again the next year.
Forcing Thanksgiving cactus to bloom requires cool temperatures and shorter daylight hours. That means if you live in a region with no frost, you can leave the cactus outside to experience just what is naturally occurring. Those of us who live where temperatures get cold will have to create false conditions indoors to protect them from the cold, but can experience cool temps down to 40 degrees Fahrenheit (4 C.) and reduced light, including artificial light. Start forcing Thanksgiving cactus to bloom in late summer to early fall.
Thanksgiving Cactus Plant Care
One of the most crucial aspects of Thanksgiving cactus plant care is water. These tropical plants should not be allowed to dry out; however, excess water at the roots can cause rotting and fungal issues.
As an epiphyte, it often has exposed roots and gathers most of its moisture through humidity in the air. Potted plants need well-draining soil and good drainage. Water thoroughly and then allow the top 1/3 of soil dry out before you water again.
Growing Thanksgiving Cactus Cuttings
The plants are easy to propagate and multiply. Snip off a stem with 4 to 5 sections and leaves. Dust the end with fungicide and allow it to callus for a week in a dry location. Fill a small clay pot with vermiculite or perlite mixed with potting soil. Alternatively, you can use damp sand.
Push the callused end into the mixture and place the pot in bright but indirect light. Tent over the cutting with a plastic bag and remove it for an hour each day to let in air. In approximately 3 weeks, the cutting will have rooted and you will have a brand new plant.
Growing Thanksgiving cactus to blooming stage will take a couple of years.
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How to Take Care of Zygocactus
Zygocactus is a common name for Thanksgiving cactus (Schlumbergera truncata syn. Zygocactus truncata). It sells as "Christmas cactus," "Thankgiving cactus," and "holiday cactus" at various stores during the holidays. True Christmas cactus (Schlumbergera x buckleyi) is not heavily marketed. Thanksgiving cactus blooms in late November, while Christmas cactus blooms around Christmas, and cultivars vary. The tropical Thanksgiving cactus produces purple, pink or white blossoms in response to the cooler temperatures and shorter days in late fall. Thanksgiving cactus is winter-hardy in in U.S. Department of Agriculture plant hardiness zones 10 to 12, but it's most often grown as a houseplant. The small, flat green stem segments are smooth, except for the toothed edges. There are no spines such as seen on many desert cactuses. The flower buds form at the tips of the topmost segments.
Reduce watering in late summer, irrigating the Thanksgiving cactus only when the top 1 inch of soil feels completely dry. Stop any fertilizer applications at this time.
Place the Thanksgiving cactus in an area that receives 13 hours of complete darkness each night and bright sun each day, beginning in mid-September for holiday bloom. Maintain cool night temperatures between 55 and 65 degrees Fahrenheit to force the cactus into flower bud production. Provide dark treatment for eight weeks before moving the cactus to a cool, sunny location.
Increase watering after dark treatment. Water the Thanksgiving cactus when the soil surface feels dry, providing just enough water to evenly moisten the soil. Empty the drip tray beneath the pot after each watering.
Resume fertilization when flowering finishes, usually in late winter or early spring. Dilute 1/2 teaspoon of a completed fertilizer, such as a 24-8-16 blend, in 1 gallon of water and irrigate the cactus with the solution every two weeks.
Repot a Thanksgiving cactus every three years after flowering, or when it outgrows its pot. Plant into a pot with a drainage hole that is one size larger than the old one, using a well-drained potting medium. Plant the cactus at the same depth in the new pot as it was growing at previously.
Things You Will Need
Thanksgiving cactus rarely experiences pest or disease problems. It may suffer from root rot in overly wet or poorly drained soil. Aphids, mites and other common houseplant pests may also infest the cactus, but you can remove them with a spray of water or by wiping the leaves with a damp towel.
Jenny Harrington has been a freelance writer since 2006. Her published articles have appeared in various print and online publications. Previously, she owned her own business, selling handmade items online, wholesale and at crafts fairs. Harrington's specialties include small business information, crafting, decorating and gardening.
How to Transplant a Thanksgiving Cactus
Thanksgiving cactus (Schlumbergera truncata) are tree-dwelling plants that you may find in garden centers in the fall. These plants get their nickname from their willingness to bloom in late November, around Thanksgiving. Similar in appearance and culture to their cousins, the Christmas and Easter cactus, Thanksgiving cactus can be long-lived and are even sometimes passed down as family heirlooms. Though they thrive on kind neglect and bloom best when pot-bound, you should repot Thanksgiving cactus roughly every three years to prevent soil compaction, or any time that the plants' roots protrude from the bottom of the pot.
Grasp the base of the Thanksgiving cactus firmly while inverting the pot. Gently slide the plant and root ball from the pot, being careful not to damage any roots that are growing out the drainage holes.
Brush away as much of the old soil as possible to expose the roots. Gently rinse any additional soil away from the roots. Examine the exposed roots carefully, checking for brown or soggy sections. Cut any damaged areas back to healthy, white tissue before proceeding.
Fill the new pot with enough orchid potting mix to allow the plant to sit at the same height it was in the old pot. Set the plant on the orchid mix in the bottom of the pot and gently fill around it until it can stand upright unsupported. Water the pot to settle the soil. Add additional orchid mix, if needed.
Give the Thanksgiving cactus a shot of liquid fertilizer mixed at half strength to help with transplant shock. Mix 1 teaspoon of Epsom salts in 1 gallon of water the following week and apply to the plant. Continue fertilizing monthly until late summer, alternating liquid fertilizer with Epsom salts biweekly.
Thanksgiving, Christmas or Easter Cactus?
Which one do you have? Is it a Christmas cactus? Or maybe a Thanksgiving cactus?
The common holiday cactus plants all look somewhat similar. But if you know what to look for, it’s simple to identify which plant is which.
The main differences between the Christmas Cactus, Thanksgiving Cactus, and Easter Cactus are the time when they bloom, and the shape of their stem segments, or ‘leaves’.
The time they bloom is obvious. Their names reflect the holiday time around when they flower. Or when they are supposed to flower when their circumstances are right. Read on, how to get your plant to flower will be described later.
So the Christmas Cactus blooms around Christmas, the Thanksgiving Cactus about a month earlier, around Thanksgiving, and the Easter Cactus grows flowers in spring around Easter.
If you get your holiday cactus plant outside the blooming period, you can identify it by looking at the leaves. Well, those green, flat ‘leaves’ are actually segmented stems. They are just called leaves by many people.
So let’s look at their shape for the differences.
- A Thanksgiving cactus has stem leaves with spikey points on the edges.
- Christmas cacti have more rounded scalloped edges.
- If you have an Easter cactus you see rounded leaves with small bristles on them.
The Thanksgiving and Christmas cacti commonly drop unopened flower buds, which may be induced by an excessive number of buds or a sudden change in temperature, light or other environmental factors, such as drying out of the growing medium. Lack of flowering is often due to light interrupting the long night period (14 hours) that is required for flowering initiation to occur. Street lights, car lights, or indoor lighting can disrupt the required dark period.
The major disease is root rot, which can be prevented by avoiding excessive watering. Insects and related pests include mealybugs, soft brown scale, red spider mites, aphids and fungus gnats.
If this document didn’t answer your questions, please contact HGIC at [email protected] or 1-888-656-9988.
Nancy Doubrava, Former HGIC Horticulture Information Specialist, Clemson University
Al Pertuit, PhD, Emeritus Faculty, Horticulture, Clemson University
Joey Williamson, PhD, HGIC Horticulture Extension Agent, Clemson University
This information is supplied with the understanding that no discrimination is intended and no endorsement of brand names or registered trademarks by the Clemson University Cooperative Extension Service is implied, nor is any discrimination intended by the exclusion of products or manufacturers not named. All recommendations are for South Carolina conditions and may not apply to other areas. Use pesticides only according to the directions on the label. All recommendations for pesticide use are for South Carolina only and were legal at the time of publication, but the status of registration and use patterns are subject to change by action of state and federal regulatory agencies. Follow all directions, precautions and restrictions that are listed.
All these years I thought I was growing Christmas cactus. Research into the holiday cacti has revealed that I was growing Thanksgiving cactus all along. Distinguishing between the two is easy if you know what to look for.
(Editor's Note: This article was originally published on November 25, 2011. Your comments are welcome, but please be aware that authors of previously published articles may not be able to promptly respond to new questions or comments.)
Both Thanksgiving and Christmas cacti are epiphytes that grow on tree branches in tropical rainforest areas. Their high perch allows water from frequent rainfall to drain quickly. Although native to Brazil, the genus is named after a Frenchman by the name of Frédéric Schlumberger. Members of the genus are easily recognized by the leaflike pads joined one to another like a chain. Flowers appear at the tips of branches and are beautiful during the day but close at night.
Schlumbergera truncata is the scientific name of the Thanksgiving cactus, and the Christmas cactus is a cross between two species and correctly named S. ×buckleyi. Even though S. truncata is the Thanksgiving cactus, it is the one that is usually sold as Christmas cactus. Sellers call it Christmas cactus because it sells best by that name. The true Christmas cactus, S. ×buckleyi, blooms a month or so later than the Thanksgiving cactus and is usually in bloom after the holidays are past.
S. truncata (Thanksgiving cactus) is easy to distinguish from the S. ×buckleyi (Christmas cactus). On Thanksgiving cactus, flowers are asymmetrical and are held out from the ovary so that they are almost horizontal from the tips of segments. Flowers of the Christmas cactus are radially symmetrical and hang down straight from the ovary.
Thanksgiving cactus: asymmetrical flowers bend upward at ovary so that they are almost horizontal
Leaf blades and growth characteristics are different, too. Leaf blade edges on Thanksgiving cactus are toothed (dentate) while those on the true Christmas cactus are crenate (scalloped) and do not have the teeth or points along the sides. Typically, the Thanksgiving cactus branches are more upright than those of the arching but pendent branches of Christmas cactus.
Christmas cactus: branches pendent
Schlumbergera ×buckleyi (Christmas cactus) is a hybrid between S. russelliana and S. truncata. The cross was made in the late 1840s by English nurseryman William Buckley. Two or three different hybrids of this cross are still available today, and work continues so that Christmas cactus is available in several different colors, all with slightly different characteristics. Because of its late bloom that appears after the Christmas season, this cactus is not usually available commercially. Nonetheless, it is a long-lived pass-along heirloom plant usually obtained from relatives or friends.
Christmas cactus: flowers symmetrical and hanging down straight from ovary
Six species, all native to eastern Brazil, make up the Schlumbergera genus. They can be divided roughly into two groups: 1) those with flattened leaf blades (phylloclades) with scalloped margins (crenate) and truncate bases (blunt-ended appearing to terminate abruptly as if cut off) with areoles in the margins and apices (S. kautskyi, S. orssichiana, S. russelliana, and S. truncata), and 2) those with cylindrical, terete (circular in cross section) or ovoid leaf blades with areoles distributed over the entire surface (S. opuntioides and S. microsphaerica). In addition, three interspecific hybrids are recognized (S. ×buckleyi, S. ×exotica, and S. ×reginae). Of these, the most commercially available species are either S. truncata or complex hybrids of S. ×buckleyi.
Thanks to friends at Dave's Garden for some of the photographs that helped illustrate my article.