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‘Cactus’ blooms for the holidays

My Christmas cactus always blooms early, sometimes before Thanksgiving. Is this normal? How can I keep it blooming longer?

holiday-cactus-thanksgivingIt’s possible the plant you call Christmas cactus is actually a Thanksgiving cactus – yes, there are two slightly different varieties. Look at the stem segments: if the margins have two to four sharp serrations along each edge, the plant is Schlumbergera truncata, the botanical name for Thanksgiving cactus, which blooms slightly earlier. If the segments are more rounded, the plant is S. bridgesii, Christmas cactus. That’s the one more likely to bloom in December or later.

Both are photoperiodic plants – they respond to the change in proportions of light and dark, and begin to form buds as days shorten and nights begin to get longer. They also thrive in the same conditions: bright light and a moderate amount of water, and a dose of balanced fertilizer every now and then. (In her book The Complete Houseplant Survival Manual, houseplant expert Barbara Pleasant suggests once-a-month feeding in winter.)

Christmas and Thanksgiving cacti are generally easy-care plants. They benefit from being outdoors during the summer, but bring them inside when nighttime temperatures drop to 40 to 50 degrees. Place them out of bright sunlight, then when buds begin to form, bring the plant into the bright light.

One other thing to know: when the plant is full of buds, it sometimes seems to resent being moved, so once it’s placed in a good spot for winter, try to avoid moving it. “Once plants begin blooming, they may drop their blossoms if exposed to any kind of stress,” Barbara Pleasant writes. A stable environment should keep those blooms going longer.

They are easy to share. Schlumbergera propagates easily from stem cuttings, and a plant can live for several years, even a decade or two.

Special care for holiday cactus

Our Christmas Cactus usually blooms around Thanksgiving. Sometimes the buds drop off before they’re open. Can you tell me what’s wrong? What kind of care do they need?

Schlumbergera truncata

Thanksgiving cactus

It’s common to call all of those exotic looking winter-blooming houseplants Christmas cactus, but there is more than one type. (Schlumbergera bridgesii) is the botanical name for Christmas cactus, and it usually does flower around Christmas. But there is also S. truncata, or Thanksgiving cactus, which normally blooms about a month earlier.

In general, any of those “holiday” cacti need bright light and a moderate amount of water. Barbara Pleasant, in her book The Complete Houseplant Survival Manual, suggests letting the soil dry out a little between waterings, and providing a dose of a balanced fertilizer about once a month in winter.

Christmas cacti are photoperiodic plants – that is, they respond to the change in proportions of light and dark, and begin to form buds at the onset of longer nights and shorter days in fall. Blooms open a few weeks later.

They can also be finicky about a change in conditions once they begin to bud – if you move them around, for instance. “Once plants begin blooming, they may drop their blossoms if exposed to any kind of stress,” says Barbara Pleasant in her book about houseplants.

More information and care tips from the Clemson University Cooperative Extension Home & Garden Information Center: the Schlumbergera is native to Brazil, and they grow as epiphytes in tree branches in shady rain forests. They enjoy being outdoors in summer, but bring them indoors when nighttime temperatures get down to 40 to 50 degrees – and certainly before frost. Place them in a cool, dark room, and bring them out into bright light when buds begin to develop.

Here’s how to tell the difference between Thanksgiving and Christmas cactus: Look at the stem segments. Thanksgiving cactus each have 2 to 4 sharp serrations along the margins. The margins of Christmas cactus are more rounded. One other distinguishing factor: When the flowers open, look at the pollen-bearing anthers. The anthers of Thanksgiving cactus are yellow; those on Christmas cactus are purplish-brown, according to the plant experts.