How To Grow and Take Care of a Thanksgiving Cactus

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Adding a holiday cactus to your indoor plant collection can bring a cascade of colorful flowers to Thanksgiving for generations to come.

When most of your outdoor flowers are gone for the season and you want something to add a splash of color indoors, a vibrant Thanksgiving cactus can come to the rescue. These flowering cacti produce flat green segments tipped with blooms of white, pink, salmon, fuchsia, red and yellow.

Thanksgiving vs. Christmas Cactus

First things first: Thanksgiving and Christmas cacti get mixed up all the time. It’s easy to see why. Their bloom times overlap, red flowers seem more Christmas-y, and Christmas gift-giving probably sparks more plant sales.

If it’s a Thankgiving cactus, also known as Schlumbergera truncata, the rectangular green segments have points resembling a crab’s claws. They’re called crab cactus in some parts of the world, but tying the plant to the holiday adds endearment in the U.S.

If the green segments are more teardrop-shaped and scalloped on the edges, then it’s a Christmas cactus, AKA Schlumbergera bridgesii, which usually blooms from December to February. An Easter cactus (Rhipsalidopsis gaertneri) has oval segments with round edges and blooms with flared flowers from March to May.

What Are the Origins of Thanksgiving Cacti?

Schlumbergera cacti are native to the mountainsides of southeastern Brazil. Europeans discovered them in the 1840s. Unlike better-known cylindrical and spiny cacti that thrive in dry deserts, Schlumbergera tolerate some shade and more water, which makes them easier to grow as a houseplant. The Easter cactus comes from a drier area of Brazil.

Hybrids have led to modern Schlumbergera choices and the variety of colors. Consider buying a trio of colors and planting them together in a larger pot. Or buy a Thanksgiving, Christmas and Easter cactus for successive blooms throughout the winter months.

How Do I Pick Out a Cactus Ready for Bloom?

If you’re buying a Thanksgiving cactus for the first time, look for a plant with lots of green segmented stems, not just a handful. Flowers bud only on the tips, so buy one full of buds and more compact than gangly for maximum color. Make sure the stems look healthy and unblemished, and there are no white flies or other pests on or swirling around the plant.

Bag it gently and transport it in a warm car, being careful not to bump the buds. Drastic temperature swings or overwatering could cause the buds to drop before they flower.

How Do I Care for My Holiday Cactus?

After your new plant blooms, consider replacing the plastic pot with a new pot, preferably ceramic so it can’t be easily knocked over by children or dogs. Check that the pot has good drainage holes; cacti can’t thrive in soggy soil. Choose a potting soil mix specifically for cacti. It should have peat moss and/or sand to keep moisture from pooling around and rotting the roots.

A Thanksgiving cactus likes to be root-bound, so transplanting shouldn’t need to be done more than every two or three years. Some grow to be large, especially those passed down from generation to generation. They can be two feet wide and a foot tall with segments shooting in every direction, not unlike a favorite display of fireworks!

How Do I Get My Thanksgiving Cactus to Bloom Again?

Starting in mid-September, the plants needs nighttime temperatures of 50 to 65 F and at least 12 hours of darkness to know when to set flower buds. This usually occurs naturally with shorter fall days and cooler temperatures. It can help to keep the cactus in a cooler room with good daylight and dark nights. Flowers ideally bloom just in time for Thanksgiving gatherings.

After blooming season, most Thanksgiving cactus need a short rest, which requires less watering. They hit their peak growing season from April through September. During that time it’s vital to give them ample sunlight, a dose of all-purpose houseplant fertilizer and weekly watering. It’s also the best time of the year to propagate a cutting.

How Can I Propogate My Thanksgiving Cactus?

If your stems are turning gangly, pinch off segments to encourage it to branch into a Y, which can be sturdier and give the plant a fuller look. Pinch or snip off the stem with at least three or four segments to start a new plant.

Let the segment of your Thanksgiving cactus dry on a paper towel for two or three days to prevent root rot. Then plant it about a quarter- or half-inch deep into a small pot of potting soil. You can also dip the pinched-off end in rooting powder to give it an extra boost in setting roots. Water when the soil dries out.

Lisa Meyers McClintick
Lisa Meyers McClintick is an award-winning Minnesota-based freelancer specializing in travel across the Upper Midwest and to national parks across the United States. She has been a longtime contributor to USA Today, Midwest Living magazine, and the Minneapolis Star Tribune, and also has written for Minnesota Monthly, TravelChannel.com and AAA publications. Her specialties include watching wildlife and birding, harvest travel, hands-on art and history, gardens and wildflowers, quirky small towns and scenic outdoors. She's a member of Society of American Travel Writers and Midwest Travel Journalists Association, which named her the 2019 Travel Writer of the Year. She's also an award-winning photographer and teaches workshops on memoir and creative writing, photography, travel, and creating sketchbooks and journals.