The holidays are often associated with particular plants such as Poinsettias, Cyclamen, and paperwhites, but my favorite group of plants is the holiday cacti. About 15 years ago, I purchased what I thought was a Christmas cactus for my grandparents (Nan and Pop), and it’s still around today despite a near-death experience one summer. My grandparents were traveling for an extended period and accidentally put the cactus in the outdoor shed in the middle of summer. Thankfully, I had decided to do some landscaping while they were gone and discovered the sad-looking cactus before it was too late. It still graces us with beautiful magenta flowers around Thanksgiving.
The time of flowering is a clue that this treasured plant is not actually a Christmas cactus (Schlumbergera x buckleyi), but is instead a Thanksgiving cactus (Schlumbergera truncata). In fact, most of the plants I see adorning store shelves at this time of the year are Thanksgiving cacti, even if the tags say otherwise. In addition to the timing of flowering, there are other features that distinguish the two.
- The stem segments (phylloclades) on the Thanksgiving cactus have distinctly pointed edges, while stem segments of the Christmas cactus are more rounded.
- The anther, which bears the pollen, is yellow on a Thanksgiving cactus but purplish-brown on the Christmas cactus.
One great characteristic of holiday cacti is the ease of propagation. Last year, I pinched several sections containing 3-5 stem segments, allowed them to callus, and placed them in well-drained potting soil. If something should happen to the mother plant, I will still have a piece of it and the treasured memories it holds. See HGIC 1554, Thanksgiving & Christmas Cacti for more detailed information on the care and propagation of these popular holiday plants.