The Pilgrims should have switched marketing firms. Even the Thanksgiving cactus gets short shrift in the rush to bring on Christmas. We’ve all heard of the Christmas cactus, the beautiful succulent with stems arching over the side of its pot that bursts into bloom in December.
But equally as beautiful, and hardly ever mentioned by name is the Thanksgiving cactus. In fact, many of the plants that are blooming by late November that are called Christmas cacti are actually Thanksgiving cacti.
How can you tell the difference between a Thanksgiving cactus and a Christmas cactus? The flowers are almost identical. Thanksgiving cacti usually bloom a few weeks earlier than Christmas cactus, resulting in their names. But bloom times can vary and crisscross.
It‘s easy to distinguish the two types. A close look at the flat stems (they don’t really have leaves), shows that they are divided into segments. Near the spot where segments join, Thanksgiving cacti have several pointed projections at each joint. Christmas cactus have rounded, smooth segments without the pointed “teeth.”
Whether it’s a Thanksgiving cactus or a Christmas cactus, the care is the same. Flowering is triggered by a combination of night temperature and day length. If nighttime temps fall between 55 and 60 degrees, flower buds will form. But if temps only fall into the lower 60’s, then the plants also need completely dark nights, similar to poinsettias, with no artificial indoor light from about 5 pm until about 7 am. If nighttime temperatures remain in the upper 60’s or 70 degrees, holiday cacti might not bloom at all. Area next to windows are often cooler than the room’s interior, which might naturally result in the right temperature to trigger flowering.
Once flower buds have formed, both types are very sensitive. Any change in location can cause the buds to fall without opening. Give the plants a little more moisture when in bud and bloom. Low humidity and drafts from heat ducts or open doors can also cause buds to drop.
Whether it’s a Thanksgiving cactus or a Christmas cactus, they’re beautiful and only become more beautiful with age. These long-lived houseplants are heritage plants, with the same plant often handed down from one generation to the next.
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