When ‘Christmas cactus’ was suggested as the plant for this newsletter, I thought, “I‘ve got this!” I already grow and am familiar with both the Christmas cactus and the Thanksgiving cactus so I felt comfortable with the topic. I am aware of the third type, the Easter cactus, but have never grown one. Even with the logic of the different blooming seasons coinciding with the name of the holiday cacti it was interesting to find that there are other ways to tell them apart too! All of the holiday cacti originate from the tropics of South America, where they can be found naturally growing on trees. Given this, they all share another common name – ‘jungle cacti.’
Most of them are epiphytic, growing high in trees, and have no spines. They have flat, jointed leaves that grow in chains one to two feet long. The flowers range in color from white through rose, red, lavender, and purple.
When purchasing a new cactus, go by the botanical name instead of the common one. Christmas cactus is Schlumbergera xbuckleyi. A Thanksgiving cactus is Schlumbergera truncate and an Easter cactus, also known as a spring cactus, is Rhipsalidopsis gaetneri or Hatiora gaetneri.
Of course the easiest way to determine the species is the blooming season. Easter cacti bloom in spring, starting to reveal flower buds in February and flowering from March through May. Christmas and Thanksgiving cacti bloom in late fall or winter, with Thanksgiving varieties typically blooming a month earlier than the Christmas ones.
Besides varying bloom seasons, another way to separate the holiday cacti is by studying the edges of their leaf segments. The Christmas cacti have smooth, round edges and Thanksgiving cacti have pointy, jagged ones; Easter cacti are known for the bristles that can be found on the edges of their leaf segments. The flowers of the spring variety also seem to be more star-shaped in their form, but have the radiant shades of colors typically found in all three species: reds, pinks and purples, with some cultivars showcasing a pure white flower.
Each holiday species typically has the same growing conditions: shorter days (eight hours) and cold nights (55°F) for flowering . One thing to consider, especially with the Easter cacti, is how much water they need. Easter species seem to be especially sensitive to over-watering. They all need filtered to bright light and organic soil with good drainage. Keep the plants evenly moist while they are actively growing, and drench and let dry during their resting period. If the soil gets too dry, the end joints drop off; if it gets too wet, the plant will rot.
Enjoy trying all three – I know I plan to add Easter cactus to my household!
Submitted by Tracy L. Livingston