A Christmas Cactus…Or is it?

I’ve lost count of the times people have said to me:
“My Christmas Cactus is flowering early this year.”
“My Christmas Cactus is flowering late, it should have been in flower over Christmas!”
“Can anyone tell me why my Easter Cactus is in flower in November? What am I doing wrong?”
Indeed, I said similar only a few weeks ago: “Gosh, this Christmas Cactus is flowering early again, it’s only November!”

Well, you could have knocked me down with a cactus flower when I was told it wasn’t a Christmas Cactus, that it is actually a Thanksgiving Cactus, so named because it blooms in November. “What! I’ve never heard of such a thing. That can’t be right, can it?”

So it came to pass that I, having been gardening and growing outdoor and indoor plants for over 50 years, came to learn that there are, in fact, 3 types of “cactus” we normally refer to as Christmas or Easter Cactus, all 3 referred to as Holiday Cacti. Holiday Cacti are succulents with flattened leaves, hence are called leaf cacti. They are not true cacti, they are epiphytes – plants that live on other plants (note I said on, not off, they are not parasitic) – which is why they have a cascading habit rather than growing upright.

And here’s the rub: it’s evidently very easy to tell the difference between all three whether they are in bloom or not. How? Each type has a different leaf form. I didn’t know that either. I’d been getting wrong all these years. Time for a closer look.

Looking closely at the plant in my photograph above, you will see the leaves are broad, flat and claw-like around the edges.

This tells you that is a Schlumbergera truncata – the Thanksgiving Cactus, because it blooms during November.

 

The Christmas Cactus is Schlumbergera bridgessii.

The flat leaves are more are more tear-drop shaped, more scalloped. It flowers during the short days of December.

 

Finally, the Easter Cactus (Hatiora gaertneri, formally Rhipsalidopsis gaertnerrii).

This family has slightly more-rounded edges to the leaves, the major difference being the leaves have short bristly hairs on the tips. Easter Cactus flowers anytime during March or April, hence it’s name.

Caring for Leaf Cacti

Water
The main issue with looking after these plants is watering. Too little, and the leaves will feel rubbery and bend easily although they will not necessarily change colour. Another sign of being under-watered is shrivelled and wrinkled leaves.

One of the first signs of overwatering is limp leaves, which will start to drop off. They turn soft and mushy, eventually rotting and turning black. The cause can often be because the plant has been left standing in water, so after watering, ensure you remove any excess water remaining in the pot. Reduce watering after the flowering season but do not allow the plant to completely dry out as it may not recover.

I water mine sparingly every 2-3 days, or when the soil looks and feels dry. Unlike ordinary cactus, these plants are not from arid deserts but from the tropics so need moisture but cannot tolerate being left completely dry for weeks as they have no means to store water.

Heat & Light
They do not like bright sunlight, preferring indirect light and a warm temperature that does not fluctuate greatly, especially between day and night. Fluctuations in temperature are one of the main causes of bud drop. Even that from moving from store to home can cause this. Nor do they like draughts or sources of heat such as from a heating vent or radiator. They require about 6 weeks of short days and long hours of darkness to encourage flowering.

Feeding
I use a liquid houseplant fertilizer (BabyBio) every two to three weeks up to a month before the first blooms are expected to appear, and again during flowering and for a month or so after.

Bud Drop
This is a frequent problem with these plants which is caused by one of two things usually: either fluctuations in temperature, as mentioned above, or by moving the plant when in bud. If the plant is healthy and in bud, it is obviously happy where it is situated so why move it to another position? Again, if you purchase a plant in bud from a store, the movement itself can cause bud drop. If this happens, do not despair. With proper care and correct watering and feeding, it will bloom again next year.

Propagation
Increasing these plants is fairly simple as they will generally root readily from a single healthy leaf. Gently pull one off the parent plant and push the severed end into a pot of fresh, free-draining soil. Don’t push in too deep, the majority of the leaf needs to be above the soil. Water sparingly until new roots appear. It can be a bit hit and miss but well worth trying if you love the flowers on the mother plant.

My “Christmas Cactus”
Finally, for a little bit of fun as it’s getting near that time of year, here is my Christmas Cactus! . He’s a real-life, living proper cactus sporting a Santa hat. My husband bought him home for me a few years ago. I thought he looked so cute I captured his image in acrylics for my Christmas cards. I hope you like him.

“Christmas Cactus” © Kit Domino Art

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