Holiday Cacti – What’s the Difference?

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In terms of plants, the holidays often bring to mind images of Fraser fir and poinsettias. Many of us may also think of the Holiday cacti – plants in the genus Schlumbergera. Most of us have probably heard of or received a Christmas cactus at some point, but what about a Thanksgiving cactus? Or an Easter cactus? Are these just different names for the same plant? If they’re different species, how do you know which one you have?

The bloom time, which you can guess based on their common names, can be one indicator, but the most important and reliable difference between the three species lies in the “leaves,” which are technically not leaves at all but cladodes, a type of stem. Holiday cacti have segmented cladodes that join together to form the branching, almost weeping, habit that is characteristic of these species.

The illustration below shows the differences in the cladodes between the different Holiday cacti. The Thanksgiving cactus has cladodes with a serrate (toothed) margin and sharply defined teeth. The Christmas cactus has margins that are more crenate (scalloped), and the Easter cactus has very rounded, crenate margins, with bristles that are found on the top of the cladodes.

You can learn more about how to identify Schlumbergera and other popular houseplants in Houseplants, Succulents, and Cacti: Identification and Use, a fully online, self-paced course taught by NC Extension Gardener in partnership with Longwood Gardens, one of the premier botanical gardens in the world. Discounts are available for Extension Master Gardener Volunteers, Extension Professionals, and JC Raulston Arboretum volunteers. Click here for frequently asked questions about this class and others in the series.