Holiday cactus care, including both Thanksgiving and Christmas cactus plants, is simple. Learn how to care for this epiphyte tropical cactus, including how to propagate it and how to encourage blooming!
Holiday cactus care: Thanksgiving and Christmas cacti
Time for another grandma plant post! Okay, it might not always be a grandma plant, but all of the gorgeous holiday cactus plants I’ve encountered have been from grandmas. (For my last grandma plant post, see my night-blooming cereus care post!) And my Thanksgiving cactus started as a cutting from my own grandmother’s plant, so…it’s a grandma plant!
Another reason why Christmas and Thanksgiving cacti are often seen as grandma plants is because they can live very long lives, often being passed down through generations. Either as a holiday gift or a just-because gift. But what are holiday cacti, and how do you tell the varieties apart? Let’s talk about it!
What are the different types of holiday cacti?
There are three main types of holiday cacti: Christmas—which is probably the most common, Thanksgiving, and Easter. The three different plants look very similar and also have similar care needs. Here’s an overview of the three.
1. Christmas cactus
Christmas cactus, otherwise known by its scientific name Schlumbergera (genus) bridgessii, is a tropical cactus hailing from South America. Its flat green leaves have rounded points along the edges, and it blooms long, lean in the winter. Late December, around—you guessed it—Christmas.
2. Thanksgiving cactus
Thanksgiving cactus, otherwise known as its scientific name Schlumbergera (genus) truncata, is very similar to the Christmas cactus. The best way to tell them apart is by looking at their leaves. While both plants have flattened green leaves, the Thanksgiving cactus has pointier tips on the leaves. It blooms long, lean flowers in the late fall—around Thanksgiving.
3. Easter Cactus
Easter Cactus, or rhipsalidopsis gaertneri, is actually part of a totally different genus. However, its leaves do look very similar to Christmas cactus leaves. It blooms in the spring, and its flowers aren’t as long and lean as the Christmas and Thanksgiving cactus flowers.
Holiday cactus care: Light, water, and soil needs
Since I own Christmas and Thanksgiving cacti, I’m going to focus on those. Both Christmas and Thanksgiving cacti enjoy bright, indirect light. That means that somewhere near a sunny window is best. But, from my personal experience, my Thanksgiving cactus has done well in medium light conditions, too.
Since these plants are tropical, they don’t mind frequent watering as long as they are planted in soil that has good drainage. I tend to let the top inch or two of my soil dry out between waterings, and it hasn’t had a negative impact on the plant. A bit of extra water while your Christmas or Thanksgiving cactus is flowering isn’t a bad idea.
I have my plants in an indoor potting soil mixture with some additional peat moss added in. Peat moss helps keep the soil light, which encourages good drainage and air circulation.
Temperature and humidity
The minimum temperature for your plant should be about 60 degrees Fahrenheit. Christmas and Thanksgiving cacti do not respond well to temperatures below 50 degrees Fahrenheit and will not tolerate frost. They do well in a variety of normal household temperatures with warmer days and slightly cooler nights.
Christmas and Thanksgiving cacti also do well in a variety of normal household humidity levels, but since they are tropical plants, they do like a bit of humidity. Group with other plants, add a humidifier, or mist the plants to help keep humidity levels higher.
Fertilizing Christmas and Thanksgiving cacti
Fertilizing isn’t really necessary with these plants, but I occasionally give them some of my regular indoor houseplant fertilizer. I tend to shy away from fertilizing plants too much, opting to do it only about once a month. You can cut fertilizing in the late fall and winter.
Encouraging a Christmas or Thanksgiving cactus to flower
Christmas and Thanksgiving cacti have lovely bright-colored, tube-like flowers. They can be bright or pale pink, purple, red, white, yellow, or a mix of these colors. My Thanksgiving cactus had a few lovely hot pink blooms last fall.
Typically when we think about getting flowers to bloom on plants, we think about giving them plenty of water, sun, and warmth. At least I do. But only one of those is true for getting Christmas and Thanksgiving cacti to bloom—watering!
Cooler temperatures and more darkness = better chance for blooms!
In fact, to get buds to turn to blooms on your plants, you actually need darkness. Nights need to be longer than the days, so you may need to cover your cactus after about 8 hours of light during the day. Or put it in a dim room or basement. Definitely don’t keep it under a grow light!
Temperature is also an important aspect of getting a Christmas or Thanksgiving cactus to bloom. It typically needs to be in the low 60s or even upper 50s to be cool enough to bloom. Last year, though, my Thanksgiving cactus bloomed in our bedroom, which is one of the warmer areas of our home. It stays about 68 degrees in the fall and winter because I’m a cheapo with the heating bills. 🙂
When you notice your cactus beginning to form buds, keep your hands to yourself! Moving the plant could cause stress, which can often lead to your cactus dropping its buds. Meaning no flowers that year. In addition to leaving the plant where it is, make sure it has plenty of water while the buds are forming and eventually while the flowers are in bloom.
Potting and pruning
These plants have very long lives and can live very happily as houseplants for decades without a whole lot of care and fuss. They need repotted every few years, both to provide additional room for growth and to refresh the soil with a nutrient-rich mixture since soil can lose its luster over time.
Although you won’t really need to prune this plant, you can do so in the spring to encourage more branching. More branching will also mean more flowers since the buds grow on the stem tips. You also might knock a stem or two off while repotting or just during the course of living in the home with your plant.
Propagating Christmas and Thanksgiving cacti
My grandmother gave me a piece of her Thanksgiving cactus that had fallen off, and I decided to propagate it. Christmas and Thanksgiving cacti can be propagated very easily through stem cuttings. The best time to do so is in the spring.
First take a cutting at a joint—that’s the area where each of the “leaves” meets. You can take a cutting with a single joint, or you can take a cutting with multiple joints. Larger pieces might have a harder time establishing new roots, though.
Simply let the cut end of your stem dry out for a few days—this will help prevent the cutting from taking on too much water when you plant it. You can dip the cut end in rooting hormone if you have it, then plant it in an indoor potting soil. Keep the soil moist to encourage root development.
After a few weeks, roots will begin to develop. You can gently tug on the cutting to check. Once this occurs, you can begin treating the new plant just as you would any other holiday cactus plant. Here’s another picture of a holiday cactus cutting my mom rooted.