How to Tell Holiday Cactus Apart

Holiday cactus types

Most people have heard of the Christmas cactus, but there are also Thanksgiving and Easter cactus varieties. While they are all similar, there are subtle and not-so-subtle differences. Identify these plants by their unique segmented stems and stunning tubular flowers. Learn more about the different holiday cactus types and how to distinguish these plants.

Plant Background

Holiday cacti hail from the coastal, mountainous rainforests of south-eastern Brazil. These plants, known as forest cacti, often grow on trees or rocks in high-altitude areas with increased humidity. Mature plants in the wild can reach up to 4 feet tall and have a shrub-like appearance. Houseplant holiday cacti often stand 1 to 2 feet tall. Older plants develop woody lower stems with age.

The holiday-related names correspond to when the plants bloom in North America. 

  • Thanksgiving cactus (Schlumbergera truncata): Bloom late fall through mid-winter
  • Christmas cactus (Schlumbergera buckleyi): Bloom early to mid-winter
  • Easter cactus (Rhipsalidopsis gaertneri): Bloom mid to late spring
Schlumbergera truncata
Thanksgiving cactus (Schlumbergera truncata)

Holiday Cactus Growth Habit

These plants do not have leaves but rather stems that function like leaves. The flat stems, known as cladodes, are broken into segments, creating a chain-like appearance. Each segment features a central core or midrib that connects all segments in a stem. 

Tiny, hair-like aerial roots grow from the spaces between the stem segments. New segments grow from the tip of the previous cladode, and that’s also where the flowers emerge. Multiple segments can grow from a single cladode, creating a branched appearance. Each section also features wings or points on the margins. The edges of the stem segments are how you tell each type of holiday cactus apart. 

Holiday Cactus Care

While the plants are different, they all have similar care needs. You will only change the care between different holiday cactus types if you actively try to get a plant to bloom. All holiday cactus houseplants bloom after they experience a period of darkness. You can trick the plants into blooming at any time of year, but you’re likelier to have success if you work on their schedule. The care will be the same, but the timeline for a Thanksgiving cactus to bloom differs from an Easter cactus.

Thanksgiving Cactus

Schlumbergera truncata is the botanical name for the plant, often known as Thanksgiving cactus. Plants in the truncata species have pointed cladode margins that resemble jagged teeth. Each segment has two to four serrated teeth per side. The dramatic points made someone at some point think of a crab’s pincers, so this plant is sometimes labeled as a crab cactus. This nickname is rare, but it does come up.

The stem segments are the most dependable way to tell the various holiday cactus types apart, but the flowers also have slightly different appearances. Using the flowers to distinguish the plants is only helpful when actively blooming, but it can help you find an answer.

Schlumbergera truncata
Thanksgiving cactus (Schlumbergera truncata)

General Traits of Schlumbergera Flowers

Schlumbergera cactus flowers measure 2 to 3 inches long. Petals grow in rows spaced far apart, giving the flower an elongated look. Thanksgiving and Christmas cacti put on a big floral display around their respective namesake holidays. Schlumbergera plants bloom for a second time several months later. The second flush of flowers is not as prolific but is still lovely.

Unique Aspects of Thanksgiving Cactus Flowers

Thanksgiving cactus flowers often tip up or remain horizontal. The petals on the upper portion of the flower are more dramatic and pronounced. The upper petals slightly curl upward and bend away from the center of the flower, while the petals on the lower half appear smaller and almost lay flat against the bloom. Thanksgiving cactus flowers have yellow pollen.

Christmas Cactus

Most holiday cactus plants are misidentified as Christmas cactus, and this name sometimes is a catch-all for any type of holiday cactus. The botanical name of the Christmas cactus is Schlumbergera buckleyi. The Christmas cactus was mislabeled as Schlumbergera bridgesii over a century ago, and that name stuck, so you will still see Christmas cacti labeled as buckleyi and bridgesii. 

Schlumbergera buckleyi
Christmas cactus (Schlumbergera buckleyi)

The Christmas cactus is a hybrid of the Thanksgiving cactus, meaning these plants are closely related, and that’s why they have so much in common regarding their appearance. Thanksgiving and Christmas cactus plants are much more likely to be mistaken for one another.

Christmas cactus have scalloped cladodoes. If the stem segments don’t settle the score, wait until the plant blooms. Christmas cactus flowers are mostly symmetrical, and the petals are the same shape throughout. The layers of petals are still spaced apart, but all of the petals flair open, giving the flower a full, bell shape. Flowers in full bloom often hang down or gently nod. A Christmas cactus in full bloom usually has a rounded appearance overall, and the stems gently arch. Christmas cactus flowers have pink pollen.

Easter Cactus

The last in this lineup of holiday cactus types is the Easter cactus or Rhipsalidopsis gaertneri. This plant belongs to a different genus but still has much in common with the Schlumbergera cacti varieties. Easter cacti are often mislabeled as Schlumbergera gaertneri, which is incorrect and adds to the general confusion surrounding these plants, but it’s also an easy mistake to make.

Easter cactus cladodes or stem segments have mostly smooth edges and feature subtle, rounded notches. While the Thanksgiving and Christmas cactus flowers differ slightly, the Easter cactus flowers stand apart. It’s possible to confuse a Christmas cactus with an Easter cactus based solely on the cladodes, but once a plant blooms, you will readily have your answer.

Rhipsalidopsis gaertneri
Easter cactus (Rhipsalidopsis gaertneri)

Easter cacti flowers still have a tubular structure, but they’re not as long, and the petals’ rows are much closer together. From straight on, Easter cacti flowers have a daisy-like appearance. The overlapping petals do not dramatically bend back, like the Schlumbergera varieties. Easter cactus flowers have a full and feathery appearance. Rhipsalidopsis gaertneri only blooms once during the spring. Easter cactus houseplants do not have a second bloom cycle.

Holiday Cactus Types

Understanding the stem shape is the key to deciphering the different holiday cactus types. If you’re unsure, the flowers can help you decide. Knowing what holiday cactus type you have enables you to fine-tune the level of care if you want your plant to bloom. All of the holiday cactus types are lovely and offer a unique texture and stunning flowers.