The Thanksgiving cactus (Schlumbergera truncata) and the Christmas cactus (Schlumbergera bridgesii) are, as their names suggest, closely related.
Care for them is similar, and to many of us, it’s hard to tell them apart, kind of like fraternal twins.
However, for those who want to know why their “Christmas cactus” is blooming in November, the answer might be because it’s really a Thanksgiving cactus.
Caring for cacti
Although native to the tropical forests of South America, these plants do nicely in hanging baskets or containers. The baskets or containers should be sturdy, as the plants can grow quite large.
They do fine outdoors, away from artificial light, until nighttime temperatures dip into the 40s. At that point, bring them inside to a cool area, as they do best when temps are between 50 and 65 degrees.
Once inside, to help initiate blooming, keep them away from light from 5 p.m.-8 a.m.
Water sparingly, as too much water can cause bud drop and even root rot. Let the top inch of soil become dry to the touch before watering again.
Cactuses like 50 percent-60 percent humidity, so if your home in winter is very dry, fill a waterproof saucer with gravel, add water halfway full, and put the cactus (in its pot, please) on the gravel surface.
If flower buds drop off before they become blooms, it is usually due to over-watering, lack of humidity or insufficient light.
Regardless of which holiday your cactus represents, avoid high temperatures and heat fluctuations when the plant is in flower.
Which one is which?
Either Schlumbergera is a striking plant in full bloom, so enjoy the show rather than fret over the proper name.
But if you really must fret … The easiest way to tell these two cacti apart (aside from blooming times) is that the Thanksgiving, or crab, cactus has sharply serrated or toothed leaves, compared to the rounded leaves of the Christmas cactus.
Another way of identifying which one you have: If the bloom pushes upward, it’s a Thanksgiving cactus. Christmas cactuses hang down.
Plant bodies are flattened, and leaves or segments are actually stems.
Old-fashioned cactus produced fuchsia-colored blooms, but now we have hybrids that come in white, red, yellow and even purple.
Long-lived (some have been in families over 50 years), these cactuses are easily propagated. You’ll need a small container of moist potting soil, a Thanksgiving or Christmas cactus to provide a cutting or cuttings, and rooting hormone, which is helpful but not necessary.
Clip off a 3- or 4-segment piece, dip the cut end in rooting hormone if you have it, then push the cut end into a container of soil about an inch or so. That’s the hard part.
Make sure the soil stays moist, which can easily be done by propping a transparent plastic bag over the cutting. To make sure the plastic doesn’t touch your cactus cutting, insert a popsicle stick or other small wooden structure in the container about an inch or so deep, and drape the plastic mini green-house over it.
Rooted, growing cuttings make great Christmas (or Thanksgiving) gifts to friends and family, gardeners or not.
Shane Harris is an extension agent for the Alabama Cooperative Extension System. For help on other home and garden questions, contact your local county Extension office or visit www.aces.edu.