Differences Between Holiday Cactus Varieties: Do I Have A Christmas Cactus Or Thanksgiving Cactus

A Potted Christmas Cactus
(Image credit: Denise Hasse)

Around the winter holidays, many holiday-specific plants are available. You may find Cyclamen, Poinsettia, Amaryllis, and of course, holiday cactus. Surprisingly, regardless of the broad moniker, there are differences among holiday cacti. Are Christmas cactus and Thanksgiving cactus the same? They are in the same genus but a different species. But the Easter cactus is a different bird altogether. Learn how to identify Christmas, Thanksgiving, and Easter cactus, and their slightly different care needs. 

Do I have a Christmas Cactus or Thanksgiving Cactus? 

Fall and winter bring out the Christmas cactus, Thanksgiving cactus, and Easter cactus stock. While all typically bloom in the cooler seasons, they are not the same cactus. If you wonder, "do I have a Christmas cactus or Thanksgiving cactus?" the question is a reasonable one. The Easter cactus is somewhat different from those two varieties. Differentiating among the three is relatively simple with a few tips. 

Christmas and Thanksgiving cacti are in the Schlumbergera genus. Both are short day cacti, which means they need long periods of cool temperatures and darkness to bloom. Both these plants need six weeks of at least 12 hours per day in cool, dim conditions before they set buds. Are Christmas cactus and Thanksgiving cactus the same? Each is in a separate species designation and have different leaf structure. 

Schlumbergera truncata, or Thanksgiving cactus, has clawed edges on the leaf and is sometimes called Crab cactus. Schlumbergera bridgesii, Christmas cactus, has notched edges but they are not as pointed. Aside from the leaf differences between holiday cactus, both have tubular, brightly colored flowers. 

How to Identify Christmas, Thanksgiving, and Easter Cactus

All three are broadly termed Zygocactus. This is not really a genus but an umbrella term for holiday cacti. The Christmas and Thanksgiving plants share a genus, but the Easter cactus is in the genus Rhipsalidopsis or Hatiora. It is also sometimes added to the same genus with species name russelliana. Botanical names are consistently changing as gene studies move them from one genus to another. There are around 300 hybrid varieties of these cacti, leading to even more species names. None of them are true cactus, but they are succulents that grow wild in South American jungles. 

Illustration by Sean Collins

Differences Between Holiday Cactus

As already mentioned, the Christmas and Thanksgiving cactus have differing leaves but the same flowers. Easter cacti, however, have smoother leaf edges with no notches, and need a much longer cool and low light period to form flowers. Easter cactus plants have flat, star shaped flowers, easy to set apart from the other holiday cacti's elongated blooms. 

Christmas cactus flowers are drooping with purple-brown anthers. Thanksgiving cactus blooms grow horizontal to the stems and have yellow anthers. 

All three plants come in a variety of colors, although red to fuchsia are the most common. You can also find them in white, orange, and yellow. Regardless of their designation, holiday cacti are fairly easy to grow and will produce blooms annually provided they have their low temperature, dim light period. 

Bonnie L. Grant
Writer

Bonnie Grant is a professional landscaper with a Certification in Urban Gardening. She has been gardening and writing for 15 years. A former professional chef, she has a passion for edible landscaping.