“What does a Christmas cactus look like?” is one of the most frequently asked questions, and with good reasons. Unbeknownst to many, there are three common types of holiday cactus namely the Thanksgiving cactus, Christmas cactus and Easter cactus. As you've probably guessed, the different species get their names for the time of year in which they bloom.
The Thanksgiving cactus, or Schlumbergera truncata, blooms in late fall whereas the Christmas cactus, or Schlumbergera bridgesii, blooms about a month later. The Easter cactus, or Schlumbergera gaetneri, on the other hand, blooms in late winter to early spring.
Although these holiday cactus are traditionally available in shades of red, the varieties you see today come in magenta, pink and scarlet, as well as yellow, white, orange, purple, salmon and apricot.
All three holiday cactus are native to Brazil – the Thanksgiving and Christmas cactus are tropical rain forest plants, while the Easter cactus is a natural (drier) forest plant.
How to Tell the Holiday Cactus Apart?
It is a common misconception that all holiday cactus are Christmas cactus. In fact, some stores incorrectly label the Thanksgiving and Easter cactus they sell as Christmas cactus. To the untrained eyes, all three cactus look absolutely identical. However, once you learn about the different characteristics of the holiday cactus (which is actually very obvious!), you will be able to tell the three holiday cactus apart easily.
The best way to tell holiday cactus apart, i.e. the most distinguishing feature of the three holiday cactus (besides the different bloom times of the plants) actually lies in the stems – which resemble leaf-like pads.
What Does a Christmas Cactus Look Like?
The stems (leaf-like pads) of the Christmas cactus are smaller with more rounded and smooth edges. They have elongated segments with rounded ends or very small tips on each stem segment end. The stems are often smaller, and a dull light green, and sometimes have a thick purplish vein running through the segmented stems. Flowers usually come in pink or pink-and-white, are elongated and look ‘doubled’.
What Does a Thanksgiving Cactus Look Like?
The stems (leaf-like pads) of the Thanksgiving cactus have serrated “teeth” on either side, which is why it is often known as the lobster cactus or crab cactus. Its stems are often larger, and a shiny medium to dark green. The leaves don’t often turn purple or reddish. Flowers come in various colors including pink, purple, red, yellow, or any dual-color mix, are elongated and look ‘doubled’.
What Does an Easter Cactus Look Like?
The stems (leaf-like pads) of the Easter cactus have a more bristled appearance. They have short, fat, rounded segments with dramatic scallops. The stems are often a dull light green or a dull dark green and sometimes have a purplish or reddish tinge around the outer edges. Flowers often come in shades of pink and purple and are not ‘doubled’ and elongated but rather look more like a daisy.
Although the Christmas cactus, Thanksgiving cactus and Easter cactus differ in appearance and characteristics, their care requirements are relatively similar. Unlike regular, desert-dwelling cactus, holiday cactus are not drought-tolerant, although a period of relative dryness is especially important for Easter cactus, which isn’t a tropical plant. They prefer dark nights and relatively cool temperatures between 50°F and 65°F (10°C and 18°C). They are also easy to propagate – just by breaking off a stem with two to five segments.