Thanksgiving vs. Christmas cactus: How they’re different

Friends and families share holiday cactus every year, but how do you know if you have a Thanksgiving cactus or a Christmas cactus? To ensure you’re properly caring for your holiday cactus, you’ll want to know exactly which plant you have. Unfortunately, these two plants are often confused because they look very similar. Even their flowers are hard to tell apart. What makes it worse — department stores, plant shops, and garden centers often mislabel these plants, which contributes to the confusion.

So here we’ll be talking about the features of each plant and how you can tell which holiday cactus you have. We’ll also talk about how to care for each of these plants, so your cactus will last long past the holiday season.

thanksgiving cactus in bloom

What is a Thanksgiving cactus?

The Thanksgiving cactus, or Schlumbergera truncata, is a pretty plant but is actually a succulent and not a cactus. The best way to distinguish this plant from a Christmas cactus is by inspecting the leaves. The leaves of a Thanksgiving cactus are much pointier than Christmas cacti. In addition, each segment has serrated sides with pointed spines. These toothed edges are likely why this plant is also known as “Crab Claw Cactus.”

You might also be able to spot the difference between these plants because of their flowers. While the flowers are very similar, a few minor details will help you figure it out. First, Thanksgiving cactus bloom around, you guessed it, Thanksgiving. Flowers can appear at the ends of each segmented “branch,” or they can bloom between segments. They come in red, pink, peach, purple, orange, or white. However, the best way to tell the difference is by looking at the anthers of the flower. On a Thanksgiving cactus, these are yellow; on a Christmas cactus, they’re pink or brown.

The Thanksgiving cactus likes partial shade; however, you can offer them more light when they bloom and they’ll still thrive. Cactus in their name might suggest otherwise, but when it comes to watering, they prefer soil that stays moist for a more extended period, and they don’t like to dry out completely between waterings. To ensure the plant has enough food to produce a lot of pretty blooms, you’ll want to provide it with plenty of fertilizer during the growing season.

christmas cactus in bloom

What is a Christmas cactus?

A Christmas cactus, or Schlumbergera bridgesii, has a much softer look to its leaves than its Turkey Day cousin. The segments on a Christmas cactus have scalloped edges, and the ends almost look like they go straight across.

The blooms of a Christmas cactus show up around Christmas time, but they can also appear around March and May. They are either pink or white, and you’ll want to look for those pink or brown anthers to ensure you have a Christmas cactus.

The Christmas cactus loves partial sun or diffused light, so a window with a thin window treatment would be perfect! They’re adaptable to most soil conditions, but they prefer their soil to stay moist. While the name cactus might make this confusing, these are “tropical” plants that love water. Don’t let the soil dry out completely between waterings, but the Christmas cactus can handle dryer soil than the Thanksgiving cactus.

In early spring and summer, this plant will want a boost of fertilizer, which you can provide with a water-soluble option or slow-release beads. However, be sure to stop fertilizing once you see flower buds, and then resume once the plant is finished blooming.

Which plant should you choose?

Deciding on which plant to choose as a gift for friends or family is simply a matter of preference. These plants are both easy to care for, bloom during a time of year when most plants are dormant, and they look so similar it’s hard to tell them apart. However, if it matters to you that you give the plant on the proper day it’s named after, we recommend taking our tips and tricks with you to the store. If you can tell the difference on your own, you can be sure you’re not a victim of incorrect labeling.

Both of these plants are lovely additions to any home during the holidays, and we love that families have been sharing and gifting them for decades. Maybe add both to your own collection so you can enjoy blooms during all the major winter holidays!

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