This time of year, we are inundated with requests for holiday plants and Christmas cactus are usually one of the top requests. We bring in these beautiful schlumbergera and they fly out the doors. However, did you know that what you think might be a Christmas cactus could actually be a Thanksgiving cactus or vice versa? Though these seem to be the same plant with their vibrant flowers and succulent leaves, and although they are from the same family, they are different plants. 

Common names are thrown around easily in the botanical world. There are instances where plants share the same common name but are completely different plants from completely different families. There are also instances when plants are in the same family but differ in variety and they still end up being labeled the same common name, as is often the case with schlumbergera, when Thanksgiving cactus gets labeled Christmas cactus. Confused yet? It CAN be confusing!

Knowing the botanical or scientific name of any plant you are interested in is a great way to kick that confusion to the curb. Keeping that in mind, let’s get back to schlumbergera and learn the differences between the Thanksgiving and Christmas cactus varieties. (We’ll even throw in info about the Easter cactus.) We’ll also give you a peek into why it’s most likely a Thanksgiving cactus is what you’ll get in November AND December. 

Holiday flowers

Insider Information about Schlumbergera

The holiday-specific common names (Thanksgiving, Christmas, Easter) are given to each variety of schlumbergera mainly because of the time of year they are expected to bloom. Growers can usually get the Thanksgiving cactus in bloom and in the stores by early November. Because these plants bloom for a long period of time, the Thanksgiving cactus is also a great choice to grow for the Christmas holiday. The Christmas cactus has a wider range for its bloom time and makes it more of a risk that they might not bloom until after the holidays. For growers hoping to capitalize on the holiday plant craze, the Thanksgiving cactus is generally the variety they tend to grow and offer at a higher volume.

*Side note: True Christmas cactus also have foliage that is a little more fragile making it more difficult to ship without damage and breakage. This adds to the reasons that Thanksgiving cactus is the more widely available variety over the upcoming holidays. 

Thanksgiving cactus are often mislabeled and given the name ‘Christmas cactus’ regardless of the variety. (Not all growers do this. Some are very particular about including the botanical name.) You are going to love your schlumbergera no matter which variety it is. But it is always nice to know what plant you are actually getting! I just thought I’d tell you about this insider information so you can check out every schlumbergera you see at any holiday parties and sound incredibly smart when you explain how you can tell what variety it is. So what variety is it? Let’s take a look at the differences.

Close up of schlumbergera, Christmas cactus.
Easter cactus flower and stem

Schlumbergera: Thanksgiving, Christmas, Easter Cactus

Schlumbergera truncata hybrid a.k.a. Thanksgiving Cactus (the most prevalently available):

  • Blooms: Sometime around October-November and can last for a few months.
  • Foliage: The flat succulent leaves are somewhat square/rectangle shaped and have a few spiky points at one end and also along the edges along their margins (they kind of look like part of a crab pincer).
  • Flowers: Comes in an array of colors and color combos. You can find red, pink, peach, white, purple, orange. The bloom looks like a long tube connecting a flower within a flower. 
  • Growth Habit: The plant generally grows upward before it starts to somewhat arch. Flowers develop at the end of foliage stems and grow up and outward. 

Schlumbergera bridgesii a.k.a. Christmas cactus

  • Blooms: Sometime between November – February (sometimes before Christmas, sometimes after). Blooms last about 2 months, and depending on care and when it previously bloomed, it could bloom again sometime between March and May.
  • Foliage: Leaf segments are rounded with scalloped edges. 
  • Flowers: Usually red or white, but other colors may be available. 
  • Growth Habit: The plant grows in a distinct weeping fashion. The foliage spills over and flowers hang downward.

The Easter cactus is not a schlumbergera but its foliage sure makes it look like one!

Rhipsalidopsis gaertneri a.k.a. Easter cactus

  • Blooms: Tends to bloom primarily in spring usually Mar-May
  • Foliage: Leaf segments are flat with a thick ridge in the center of one side. Tiny bristles on end of leaf segments.
  • Flowers: Variety of colors. Blooms are trumpet-like and star shaped. 
  • Growth Habit: Flowers grow upward before slightly arching outward

Now here’s a test. Take a look at the three pictures above. Can you guess which cactus you are looking at by their leaves? Did you guess this order: Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Easter? Hot Tamale! You got it!

White Thankgiving cactus close up.

A quick look at the pictures of each of these plants and you can see how they could easily be mistaken for each other. But reading through their descriptions, you can see the subtle differences. To keep your selected schlumbergera blooming during the time of year you want it to, you might want to take a look at this article from the Texas Master Gardeners. It contains care and tips for getting your holiday cactus to bloom again when you want it to. 

We are getting these schlumbergera in at the nurseries and they look beautiful. I’ll leave it to you to discover what type we have, now that you know all about them!

~The Happy Gardener, Lisa Mulroy