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Not Your Grandma's Christmas Cactus

Thanks Giving Cactus LeavesOn a previous entry here I wrote about how to get your Christmas Cactus to flower and on my other blog I wrote an entry on rooting Christmas Cactus cuttings. In the first entry here I alluded to something being fishy in regards to calling my plants "Christmas Cacti." Most of the plants sold today as "Christmas Cactus" are actually not the true Christmas cactus. These are not your grandma's Christmas cactus.

The Schlumbergera truncata cultivars being sold today as "Christmas Cactus" are actually the plant commonly referred to as "Thanksgiving Cactus." The real Christmas cactus is Schlumbergera x. buckleyi and is a cross between S. russelliana and S. truncata. The plant was produced by William Buckley at the Rollisson Nurseries in England.

Why are two different plants going by the same common name?

The reason that Schlumbergera truncata is going by "Christmas Cactus" today instead of "Thanksgiving Cactus" is because of money. Professional plant growers can get Schlumbergera truncata to flower easier and sooner. The ease with which they can be coaxed into blooming make them the more attractive of the two plants. Add to that fact that Schlumbergera truncata comes in a wider range of colors, Christmas is easier to market than Thanksgiving and you have yourself a Christmas miracle.

How to tell the two succulents apart.

Superficially the easiest way to tell whether you have a "Christmas Cactus" or a "Thanksgiving Cactus" is to look at the leaf segments. Look at the photo above of my Christmas cactus, that is really a Thanksgiving cactus, and notice the edges of the leaves. The Thanksgiving cactus has pointed edges that remind some people of crabs, where the real Christmas cactus has scalloped edges or no points on the leaves. Hybridizing has produced some plants with or without the pointed edges but the edge of the leaf is generally a good indicator. Also the way the plants grow help us identify the real Christmas cactus. Schlumbergera truncata (Thanksgiving cactus) grows more upright while Schlumbergera x. buckleyi has leaves and flowers that arch down.

If you're growing a Christmas cactus that was grown from cuttings which were taken from your grandmother's plant then the chances are really good that you do indeed have a "Christmas Cactus." Those of us not lucky enough to be growing heirloom plants and have plants grown commercially in the recent past are not so lucky. Christmas cacti can still be found in some places available for sale but they aren't as common as they were in years past. I've heard of cuttings of real Christmas cacti selling for a premium on places like ebay but I have yet to come across one in real life.

I won't even mention the "Easter Cactus" instead I'll direct you to a really good page that gives more information on this subject. Recognition and Culture of the Holiday Cacti (Thanksgiving, Christmas and Easter Cacti) by Paul J. Brunelle has illustrations of all three plants and good information.


  1. who knew? I'll have to see if my mother still has a ?Christmas cacti? that she got from her mother, and look at the leaves.

  2. Great info on a great plant. I bring these into the nursery every year and especially like the newer hybrids that are in the yellows, golds, and oranges. They sell well too!
    Thanks for the great post.

  3. Anonymous12:30 PM

    Yes, I've heard about this before. I really don't know why they're doing this. Totally unnecessary.

    The first snowflakes has arrived here the other day, making it hard to find any flowers. My post is very greenish anyway...

  4. Here in Germany they call these succulents also "Weihnachtskaktus" i.e. Chritmas cactus and very common is also "Osterkaktus". My old mother seems to have both, but I never heard of a "Erntedankkaktus" here i.e. Thanksgiving cactus- even though they are sold here in plant shops in full bloom around Thanksgiving.
    My old mother seems to have both Schlumbergera truncata and Hatiora, next time I visit her, I´ll have a look if it is the real one and not a hybrid.
    I always appreciate your interesting postings :-), Mr. Brown Thumb !

  5. Muum,

    If it is an heirloom plant chances are yours is the real deal.


    You know those yellow one were all the rage on GardenWeb the past two years so I can imagine they sell well.


    You're right that it is unnecessary but that doesn't really matter to the growers. It is the money that drives them.


    Thanks for stopping by and giving me some info I hadn't considered. I wonder which are the most common of these plants outside the US and how readily available the real Christmas cactus is outside the US.

  6. Do you have a preference? I have a friend who dearly wants one for Christmas and I planned to get one for her. Who knew that a thanksgiving cactus might be masquerading under the name "Christmas cactus"?? If you find a source for the real deal, please let me know! Chris

  7. I was going to ask about the Easter cactus but you beat me to it. Thanks for the link. ;)

  8. Chris,

    I don't think I have a preference. Mostly my problem is that I don't like it when manufacturers or marketers try to play these tricks with people. But if I come across some I'll let you know.

    You're welcomed.

  9. I'd often wondered about the two names... thanks for the info!

  10. P.S. Because you plant geeked, may I word geek? Cactus is a Greek word, not a Latin one, so the plural is cactuses, not cacti. Thank you and I return you to your regularly scheduled life. :)

  11. Anonymous3:24 PM

    My cat keeps eating the blossoms on my Xmas cactus and I can't figure out why. This year both of them were heavily budded. She sits next to them in the window, and poof the flowers are gone!

  12. Anonymous3:35 PM

    I think I have a true Christmas cactus (that starts to set blooms in November).

  13. Anonymous3:46 PM

    mine is almost 40 years old. It blooms profusely for Halloween every year, then sporadically until spring. this year I am seeing a lot of leaf wilt & drop. I think I should repot. any ideas?



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