University of Vermont
Department of Plant and Soil Science
EASY HOUSEPLANTS—THANKSGIVING CACTUS
Dr. Leonard Perry, Horticulture Professor
University of Vermont
You have probably heard of the Christmas cactus, but did you know that there
is also a Thanksgiving cactus which, as you've probably guessed, comes into
bloom in November? This houseplant doesn’t have spines, as its name
may lead you to believe, has easy culture, and can live for many years. Some
people have plants that were passed down from their mother or even
You can tell the Thanksgiving cactus (Schlumbergera truncata) apart
from the Christmas cactus (Schlumbergera bridgesii) from the shape of
its leaves. The leaf segments, botanically termed “phylloclades”, are
serrated or "toothed" on the former as compared to the more rounded leaf
margins of the Christmas cactus. Also look at the pollen-bearing
anthers—those on the former are yellow, those of the Christmas cactus are
pink to purplish-brown.
You may see the Thanksgiving cactus listed by another older name (Zygocactus)
in some older references. These two species are native to coastal
mountains of south-eastern Brazil, where they are found growing in trees
(“epiphytic”) and on rocks (“epilithic”) in shady and humid
conditions. With their pendulous branches, they work well in hanging
There even is an Easter cactus (Rhipsalidopsis gaetneri), blooming of
course in spring, whose leaf margins have small bristles, leaves are more
three-dimensional with a thick ridge on one side, and flowers are more
star-shaped than the other two cacti. It is native to the natural
non-tropical forests of Brazil.
Flowers of the Thanksgiving cactus and its relatives are produced from the
tips, or from where the leaf segments join. They’re quite unusual,
resembling a long tube of a couple inches, appearing as if a flower within a
flower. Tops are different from the bottoms of each flower, termed
“zygomorphic”. Flowers come in a range of colors, mostly pastels, including
variations of red, pink, peach, purple, orange, or white.
To care for your Thanksgiving cactus, allow the soil to dry out during
"resting periods," or in other words, when it is not producing blooms.
Water only when the soil is dry to the touch. Overwatering can kill the
plant. Provide plenty of indirect light and room temperatures of 60 to
65 degrees F.
If you already have a Thanksgiving cactus from last year, to get it to bloom
on time you’ll need to begin temperature and light treatments in
mid-September. It will need 12 to 14 hours of total darkness, along
with cool nighttime temperatures of 60 to 65 degrees (F), for about three to
four weeks in order to form buds. When you see buds, you can go back
to normal lighting, but keep plants cool.
The easiest way to achieve the light control is to place the plant in a
closet from 6 p.m. to 8 a.m., just remember to bring it out each day.
Or you can cover the plant with a large brown paper bag. As little as
a couple hours of light during this dark period can negate your efforts.
If you keep the plant in a continuously cool room around 50 to 60 degrees
(F) in September and October, chances are excellent that it will produce
flowers, regardless of day length, growth though will be slower. Buds
may drop off, however, around 50 degrees or below. Since only the mature
leaf segments produce buds, you may want to remove any immature ones that
are less than about a half-inch long unless you want longer stems for future
Once buds start to form, apply houseplant fertilizer according to label
directions to encourage lush growth and an abundance of blooms. Too
high a temperature, heat fluctuations (such as placement near heating
vents), too dry, or too low a light level will cause buds to drop.
Keep evenly moist, but not overwatered or sitting in a saucer of water—this
can lead to root rots and plant death. They usually don’t get pests,
but watch for the white cottony mealybugs.
Although Thanksgiving cactus like to be slightly pot bound, repot as needed
to prevent plants from becoming too pot bound—about once every three
years—which is best done in spring. If they haven’t been repotted for
years, they may have fewer or no blooms. Since these cacti
naturally grow in trees, they prefer a growing medium that is quite
well-drained with good aeration, such as from about 60 percent potting soil
(not garden soil) and 40 percent perlite.
When planted in a decorative pot, they make a nice gift, holiday table
centerpiece, or present for friends and family. Most garden stores,
chain stores, and even grocers carry holiday cactus plants, although it is
easy to grow them from cuttings if you have a plant already.
To propagate, snip off a branch with four or five segments or sections of
leaves. It is usually a good idea to place the cutting where it will
get good air circulation, out of direct sun, for a few days to allow the
wound to begin healing before planting.
To plant, push the root end of the cutting about one inch deep into potting
soil, vermiculite, or damp sand. The medium should be kept just barely
moist, not wet. To help prevent the soil from drying out, invert
a plastic bag over the pot. Use straws or popsicle sticks to
keep the bag from resting on the foliage. Vent frequently to keep from
being too moist.
For best results, place the pot with cuttings in a spot that gets plenty of
light but is out of direct sunlight. You should see new growth in
three to four weeks. Don’t get too anxious to see flowers though on
your newly rooted cutting, as it may take a couple years for the plant to
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