What is a Christmas Cactus?

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The most popular of a trio of holiday houseplants, the Christmas cactus brightens homes in the dead of winter.

Christmas cactus (Schlumbergera x buckleyi) is known for its bright tubular flowers, which offer bold hues of magenta, pink, red, orange, purple and white for four to six weeks just when a burst of color is sorely needed.

Holiday Cactus Trio

The Christmas cactus (pictured above) is the best known member of a trio of holiday cacti — it has relatives that bloom around Thanksgiving and Easter.

Thanksgiving Cactus

Thanksgiving CactusKathy Reasor/Getty Images

Thanksgiving cactus (Schlumbergera truncata), also called crab claw or yoke cactus, is sometimes confused with Christmas cactus (or even sold as Christmas cactus so retailers get a head start on the season). Other than variations in the leaves and bloom times, there’s little difference.

Easter Cactus

Easter Cactus Gettyimages 186549827sever180/Getty Images

Easter cactus (Hatiora gaertneri) is the least common of the three, but it is incredibly similar in appearance and care. The main difference is that Easter cactus is a spring-blooming plant. According to the University of Arkansas Extension, the Easter cactus has more trumped-shaped flowers, and the segments have bristles between them and at the tips. The edges of the segments are often purplish.

Where Christmas Cacti Grow

Despite the name, these aren’t the sun-loving, drought-tolerant cacti you’re used to. Native to the mountains of Brazil, these holiday cacti root themselves in the organic debris that accumulates in the crevices of tree branches.

They’re used to moisture and humidity—but also rapid drainage. Bad drainage or too much moisture can result in stem rot. Not enough moisture may cause flowerbuds to drop without opening. Low humidity or a sudden change in temperature or light can also cause flowerbuds to drop. If your home lacks humidity, set your Christmas cactus on a tray of pebbles filled with water. The pebbles will keep the planter from sitting in the water.

How to Grow Christmas Cactus

Christmas cactus likes a bright window most of the time—but not in summer, when the more intense sunlight can burn foliage. At that time, simply move it away from the window.

Christmas cactus blooms according to a set schedule—generally, when the amount of daylight is between 8 and 10 hours a day for a period of 6 weeks. Streetlights and indoor lighting can interfere with this short-day/long-night preference, so to get your Christmas cactus to bloom on schedule, you may need to cover it at night or keep it in an unused room where indoor lights aren’t turned on regularly. Temperature is also important for flowering, as nighttime temperatures should be kept below 68 degrees F.

Luke Miller
Luke Miller is an award-winning garden editor with 25 years' experience in horticultural communications, including editing a national magazine and creating print and online gardening content for a national retailer. He grew up across the street from a park arboretum and has a lifelong passion for gardening in general and trees in particular. In addition to his journalism degree, he has studied horticulture and is a Master Gardener.