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Chicago Urban Gardening

The day to day experiences of a University of Illinois Extension Urban Horticulture Educator in Chicago, Illinois
Christmas Cactus

Thanksgiving Cactus, Christmas Cactus, Easter Cactus: What's the Difference?

Posted by Ron Wolford -

Around the holidays, we often see blooming plants that are members of the cactus family. The Thanksgiving cactus (Schlumbergera truncata), the Christmas cactus (Schlumbergera bridgesii), and the Easter cactus (Rhipsalidopsis gaetneri) all look alike. The Schlumbergera species are native to the tropical forests of Brazil, while the Rhipsalidopsis species is native to the natural forests of Brazil.

These three species of cactus are members of the group of cacti called leaf cacti, explains Martha Smith, University of Illinois Extension horticulture educator. The plant bodies are flattened and the leaves are actually stems. The flowers are produced from notches in these stems or from the tips. The fuchsia-like flowers last a long time. They are usually pink, but modern hybrids include white, red, yellow, and purple varieties.

Smith says the main difference between the Christmas and Thanksgiving cactus, and the Easter cactus is the time of bloom. As their common names suggest, a Thanksgiving cactus can bloom in late fall, one month before the Christmas cactus. The Easter cactus starts producing flower buds in February. Regardless of type, there are steps to follow to ensure bloom.

Flower bud initiation responds to cool temperatures and shortened day length. Thanksgiving and Christmas cactus should be left outdoors, away from artificial light until night temperatures dip into the 40s. At this time, they do best at temperatures between 50 and 65 degrees. Bring them in and place them in a cool area, keeping them away from all light between the hours of 5 p.m. and 8 a.m., and water weekly. Avoid heating vents that can cause temperature fluctuations. The plants should come into flower sometime in December through January.

"If you want them to bloom sooner, start the cool temp/short day treatment earlier," says Smith.

The Easter cactus requires a dry period. From October to November, very little water is required for flower bud initiation. Easter cactus should also be placed in the same cool area under shorter light periods at this time. In December, raise the temperature to about 65 degrees and water sparingly. Expect flowering around March.

"Regardless of which type of cactus you have, avoid high temperatures and heat fluctuations when the plant is flowering," says Smith. "Lack of flowering is directly related to the cool temp/short day treatment. The Easter cactus is a bit different since it is not a tropical plant. It requires a dry period."

Source: Martha A. Smith, Extension Educator, Horticulture,

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