Planet Houseplant’s Guide to Thanksgiving/Christmas Cactus

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Christmas (or more likely, Thanksgiving) cactus are a popular winter houseplant because they produce the most beautiful pink or orange flowers.

They’re pretty easygoing, but they require very different care from their desert cousins. Schlumbergera live in the tropical rainforests of south-eastern Brazil, so they need more moisture than you might expect for a succulent.

Christmas cactus (Schlumbergera bridgesii) are actually a pretty rare plant nowadays. Schlumbergera truncata, also known as Thanksgiving Cactus are commonly sold under the guise of Christmas Cactus. Does it really matter? Probably not.

They’re a great option for home decor and table centrepieces etc because they’re non-toxic. They can be a little spiky though, so perhaps not 100% pet-safe.

thanksgiving cactus in plastic nursery pot

Quickfire Christmas Cactus care

LightWater thoroughly when the soil is nearly dry – every couple of weeks or so
Humidity50-60% but they’re not pfussy
TemperatureHappy in ambient room temperature – the drop in winter promotes blooming
WateringWater thoroughly when the soil is nearly dry – every couple of week or so
FertilisingRegularly throughout summer to ensure flowers
SoilAroid mix
PropagationStem cuttings
Common pestsmealybugs, scale
Do they flower?yes
Are they non-toxic?yes

Where do Christmas/Thanksgiving Cacti come from?

The tropical rainforests of south-eastern Brazil – if you look at a map of Brazil, the 6-9 species of schlumbergera are distributed around the state of Rio de Janeiro, encroaching a bit on Espirito Santo and Sao Paulo to the north and south.

The natural distribution has been compromised a bit since the mass cultivation of the Thanksgiving Cactus. They became very popular, so a lot were taken from the wild. European cultivars were introduced to try to boost the population, but they were planted in national parks rather than back in the wild.

It makes sense because you’d want to keep an eye on introduced species. Imagine trying to boost the population of a plant by adding a load of new ones, but then accidentally releasing a disease that killed them all.

They’re epiphytes/lithophytes, so rather than growing in the ground, they attach their roots to trees or rocks.

How to care for Christmas/Thanksgiving Cactus

Schlumbergera come from high altitude rainforests, so there’s a lot of bright light BUT it’s shaded due to cloud cover.

I move my cactus around, depending on the season.

So, here in the UK, I keep my Thanksgiving Cactus on my living room coffee table from October to March, about four feet from a big, south-facing window. It provides plenty of bright light but not much direct light (because the sun is always behind clouds).

In summer, that would be too much bright, direct light, which can result in bleached leaves and burning. I move it to a bookcase that’s further away from the south-facing window, but also in range of a north-facing window – so a high volume of light but no direct sun.

thanksgiving cactus

I wait until it has buds before moving it to the brighter light. It usually drops a few, but that’s normal.

I’ve never had to worry about giving my Christmas Cactus a specific amount of light to promote blooming, because the days get so short in the UK that the light just…does it by itself.

If you keep your Christmas Cactus under grow lights, you only want to run them for about 10 hours a day – they need 14 hours of darkness to promote blooming.

Schlumbergera aren't too sensitive to articificial ambient lighting, so as long as you keep your room fairly low lit (we just have one lamp on in winter) it'll still count as 'darkness'.

Poinsetta, on the other hand, are sensitive to ALL light, so if you want it to bloom, it needs total darkness for 14 hours a day.

Too much direct light in summer can result in red growth, which is a sign of sun stress. Further stress will turn them yellow, and they begin to look droopy and sad.

dehydrated phylloclades of a thanksgiving cactus

Christmas/Thanksgiving cactus humidity requirements

Unlike desert cacti, Christmas cacti need higher levels of humidity to grow well – about 50-60% is great. Lower humidity can result in dropped buds.

Make sure you’re adding moisture to your air with a humidifier – misting the leaves will likely result in rotting unless you have really good airflow.

Christmas/Thanksgiving cactus temperature requirements

They like it a little cooler than other tropical plants because the cloud rainforests they hail from are quite high altitude and pretty cool.

60-65˚F/15-18˚C is perfect but mine gets way hotter in summer and colder in winter and hasn’t complained.

Christmas/Thanksgiving cactus watering requirements

I treat mine like I would a Hoya – give it a really good soak when the soak is pretty dry – around a 2 on the moisture metre. In the winter months there might be six weeks between waterings (it’s in the same pot I bought it in, which is pretty big), in summer I usually water every other week ish.

They’re a little bit fussier about water quality than desert cacti. I still give mine tap water and it seems pretty happy, but if you struggle with getting your to grow or bloom you could try filtered water.

I don’t let it dry out to the same degree that I would a regular cactus. They do have pretty succulent leaves so they will be totally fine if you accidentally leave them to dry out for too long, but letting them get dehydrated too often can cause them to drop their leaves, and you won’t get as many flowers.

Overwatering is incredibly common in Christmas/Thanksgiving cactus for a couple of reasons:

  1. Inexperienced plant people buy them, because they’re cheap home decor in winter
  2. They’re mainly sold in winter, when it takes way longer for soil to dry out.

Like most cacti, they have a relatively small root system, so it doesn’t take long to damage it. They’re not particularly prone to root rot if (big if) you let them dry out properly between waterings.

closeup of a thanksgiving cactus flower

Christmas/Thanksgiving cactus fertiliser requirements

Thanksgiving/Christmas cacti do their active growing in summer, like most tropical plants. During the summer months, you need to fertilise your cactus regularly. This will help it store energy that will later be directed to making flower buds.

I use the GH Flora series to fertilise ALL my houseplants throughout the growing season. I don’t bother fertilising in winter, because my house is dark and cold and it feels like I’m asking too much of my plants. Also, I’d rather be on the sofa under a blanket.

As for frequency, it doesn’t really matter. As long as you’re fertilising at least every six weeks then you’re fine. I try to fertilise my plants every other time I water, which in reality ends up being every third time-ish.

Christmas/Thanksgiving soil requirements

Confession time: mine has never been repotted. I did get it from a good garden centre though, so I’m not concerned. From what I can tell, it’s in a mix of store-bought houseplant potting soil and perlite. It’s blooming like a champ so I’m happy to keep it in that mix.

thanksgiving cactus soil

An aroid mix is also a good option. Schlumbergera like to have decent airflow to the roots so a well-draining mix will do fine. You could opt for a cactus mix, but you’ll need to make sure it stays well-hydrated.

I like to keep mine in its plastic nursery pot. My preferred method of deciding whether plants need watering is to pick them up and gauge how heavy they are, and a plastic pot is super light so works well. You can always buy a ‘nice’ pot to sit it in.

I wouldn’t go for a terracotta pot, purely because they dry out very quickly. If you let it dry out too much too frequently you won’t get many flowers.

How to propagate Christmas/Thanksgiving Cactus

Unlike tropical houseplants we keep for the foliage, timing is pretty important when it comes to propagating Christmas cacti. Wait until after they’ve bloomed to take cuttings, but before they’ve started putting out spring growth. Usually around the end of January/start of February time.

The individual sections or ‘leafy things’ are called phylloclades, which is a flattened branch or stem that looks like a leaf. So though it looks like we’re taking leaf cuttings, they’re actually stem cuttings.

thanksgiving cactus buds

Cutting size doesn’t really matter. It’s usually determined by a) how much of the plant you want to cut back (they can get big and unruly) and how many cuttings you want. Putting multiple cuttings in one pot can help create a bushier plant in a shorter space of time

You can just stick the end of the cutting in a pot of soil or water and wait for it to root. I usually take a three-pad cutting and submerge the lowest pad halfway into the substrate.

To callus or not to callus?

There's zero scientific evidence that you need to leave cacti to callus before propagating HOWEVER I feel that there are SO MANY experts telling us to do so that...we should listen? 
I don't leave, for example, aroid cuttings to callus, but I do leave succulents to dry out for a couple of days.

In my experience, Christmas/Thanksgiving cactus root pretty quickly in water BUT transferring them from water to soil can be a pain if you’ve not tried it before. They root much more slowly in soil and the pads can deteriorate during the roots process, but you don’t need to transfer them and I find they put out new growth faster.

I think soil is better and yet I prefer to prop in water. Make it make sense.

closeup of a thanksgiving cactus flower

How to get your Christmas/ThanksgivingCactus to flower

It comes down to good care.

Lighting and temperature do play a role, BUT get the care down first.

Let’s assume you buy your plant in October/November (since that’s usually the only time they’re for sale, at least around me). They usually already have buds on in the store – the quicker you get it home, the more buds you’ll retain.

Schlumbergera are looking for an excuse to drop their buds, so you need to give them as little upheaval as possible. Get the shop to wrap it up so it’s protected from the cold and get home asap. Put it in a good spot with decent light (so close to a window – which direction depends on your climate, but you want bright, indirect light) and only water when the soil is almost dry.

The buds are already formed. All you can do is minimise droppage by putting it somewhere good and leaving it alone.

Mine drooped about half of its buds, and of those remaining half have unfurled and half are still deciding.

Once it’s done flowering, leave it be until March (take cuttings if you wish). Then pop it somewhere where it gets long hours of light, but no direct light. If it turns red, move it away from the light a bit. Water it when the soil dries out, and fertilise monthly ish.

It will need a drop in temperature around late September. I move mine to a brighter spot (but not that bright because…it’s September in England. It’s also cooler because its near the window.

Buds should start forming on the ends of the pads.

Avoid moving the plant once it has buds, because slight changes can cause it to drop them. You don’t need to go mad on feeding and watering – the feeding has already done it’s job, and they don’t require extra water for blooming – just keep checking the soil as usual.

It may take a couple of years to get the positioning right, but they’re pretty ready bloomers (especially some of the newer hybrids) so I have every faith in you.

the dropped buds of a thanksgiving cactus

Let’s finish off with a nice Christmas/Thanksgiving FAQ:

What’s the difference between Thanksgiving and Christmas cactus?

You most likely have a Thanksgiving cactus. ‘Proper’ Christmas cactus are pretty rare nowadays. Thanksgiving cactus have spikes on their pads/leaves, whereas Christmas Cactus pads are more rounded.

Also Thanksgiving cactus bloom in mid to late November and Christmas cactus bloom in mid to late December.

They require the same care so it doesn’t really matter which one you have.

What about easter cactus?

It’s been ousted from the group! It used to be classified under the genus Schlumbergera but has been sent to live as a Rhipsalidopsis. Care is very much the same though. And it blooms in early spring (you’ve probably worked that one out for yourself though).

What’s a Thanksgiving Cactus called in the UK?

Christmas cactus – if you look at the photo of the dropped buds above you can see the label. My parents have one and I told them it was a Thanksgiving cactus. They looked at me for a long time and informed me that they were going to call it a November cactus.

Can a Thanksgiving cactus bloom more than once?

Yes, they bloom annually and will keep on blooming for years on end. And they can live for over 100 years, so you get great value for money.

Should I remove dead flowers from Thanksgiving cactus?

Yes. it won’t promote more growth but can attract gnats. Also in the ‘attracting gnats’ segment, don’t add banana peels, coffee grounds, or any other DIY fertiliser. They can be effective but they definitely attract gnats.

Should I water my Thanksgiving cactus when it has buds?

Yes, but only when the soil is practically dry. A moisture metre is helpful if you’re new to houseplants. Wait until it reads 2. They’re not massively accurate, but shop-bought plants are usually in dense soil so it should work fine.

Can you bottom water Thanksgiving cactus?

Yeah, they don’t care how they get water, as long as they get enough. But also don’t overwater.

Do cactus like to be rootbound?

No, but they have very small root systems so they don’t need repotting very often. I have cacti that have been in the same-sized pot for years, I just add more soil when it starts turning to dust. As long as you fertilise they’ll be fine.

Why hasn’t my Thanksgiving cactus bloomed?

  • Root issues – under/overwatering
  • Lack of feed over the summer
  • Too warm
  • Too much light
  • You upset it and it dropped its blooms.

It’s difficult to diagnose the issue without seeing it, so leave me a comment below (or dm me on Instagram) and we can try to get to the bottom of the issue.

I hope this was helpful, and you’re more confident in your Thanksgiving/Christmas cactus care. Feel free to reach out if you have any issues.

Caroline Cocker

Caroline is the founder and writer (and plant keeper) of Planet Houseplant

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