Find out whether your plant is a Thanksgiving, Christmas, or Easter cactus (Schlumbergera or Rhipsalidopsis) with these identification tips. The shape of the leaves, which are really modified branches or clades, provide the best clues.
To keep these plants growing year-round indoors, use these Christmas Cactus Care Tips.
How to Identify Holiday Cactus Plants
Is this a Christmas, Thanksgiving, or Easter Cactus?
If you have a bet with a friend about the identity of a flowering holiday cactus picked up at the supermarket, you may just want to call a draw if you are arguing about whether it’s a Christmas or Thanksgiving or (less likely) Easter cactus.
Because marketers use these names for an array of different plants depending on the blooming time and where you live. And the same plant can be tagged with any of those names depending on when it is sold.
For example, the same cultivar sold as a Thanksgiving cactus in the United States may be sold as a Christmas cactus in Canada. Why? Canada celebrates Thanksgiving early in October so, by the time these plants are budding and blooming in November, that holiday is long gone and the name Christmas makes more sense to consumers.
And this is why it is best, when possible, to spare your friendship and identify plants by their botanical names instead of regional common names or marketing terms. There will still be some difficult-to-ID plants and taxonomical changes and disagreements in the scientific community, but at least with botanical names we can begin to speak the same language.
Just to make the puzzle complete, I’ve also seen holiday cactus plants tagged with the wrong botanical name, which is not surprising when mass produced for holiday shoppers.
Check the Leaves
The most common tip for identifying holiday cactus is to look at the shape of the leaves. We say “leaves” but these are really modified branches called cladodes or “clades.” If distinct, it’s a great clue, but again there are plenty of cultivars that will confound even an experienced keen-eyed gardener. There is more on this (below).
If the leaves (clades) are not distinct, the flowers also provide clues.
Observe the Blooms
Schlumbergeras (see below) produce similar flowers (in a range of colors) with some subtle differences including pollen colors.
Rhipsalidopsis (Easter Cactus) has a distinctly different flower formation than Schlumbergeras and rarely gets caught up in the debate.
But the good news is, no matter what it is, all of these plants need the same care (see Holiday Cactus Care Guide here).
Types of Holiday Cactus
1Schlumbergera truncata | Thanksgiving cactus (United States) | Christmas cactus (Canada)
“Claw cactus” or “Crab cactus”
The quickest way to identify a Thanksgiving cactus (Schlumbergera truncata) is to check the leaves for pointy edges and note the time of year it flowers.
- This is the most common holiday cactus sold in stores due to qualities making them more convenient to mass produce, ship, and display.
- They are easy to spot due to the points on the leaf edges that may resemble little saw blades or pointed teeth.
- These flowers grow horizontally, have differently-shaped upper and lower sides (zygomorphic), and yellow pollen, which you will find located on the anther (you may want to look up a diagram).
2Schlumbergera x buckleyi | Christmas cactus (United States)
- Originally a hybrid between Schlumbergera russelliana and Schlumbergera truncata, your Schlumbergera x buckleyi may have all scalloped leaves (“clades”), or scalloped and pointed ones.
- These flowers are symmetrical, have pink pollen, and tend to grow downward.
3Schlumbergera bridgesii | Christmas cactus (years ago)
Years ago, this one was considered The Christmas Cactus, although the buckleyi now seems to dominate the title. You can read about the dispute/history here at Davesgarden.com.
- This one tends to have more rounded leaves (“clades”) with scalloped-edges.
The Schlumbergeras can bloom twice a year, first between October and February, and then between March and May, with white, pink, orange, or red flowers.
4Rhipsalidopsis | Easter Cactus
- Besides the later flowering time, you’ll also notice the shape of the Easter Cactus flowers is quite different from Schlumbergeras.
- Look for flat, rectangular leaves (“clades”) with slightly scalloped edges, and round, upward-facing flowers.
These are sometimes also confused with Orchid Cacti, which are epiphyllum hybrids. The name and identification confusion never stops!
Easter Cactus Trivia
While long touted as a different genus, subgenus Rhipsalidopsis has recently been transferred into Schlumbergera, though this change has yet to be adopted by many Cactaceae (cactus plant family) authorities. It will be interesting to see if this change is embraced as time goes on.
So, unless the evidence is overwhelming, save your friendship. See if you can identify your plants by their botanical names and agree the plant by any common name is beautiful.
Ever notice little whisker-like roots growing from the leaves on your holiday cactus? This is normal for any epiphytic plants (“air plants”). In the wild these roots would help the plant anchor to its host.
Whether your plant is marketed as Christmas, Thanksgiving, or Easter, they all require the same care. There is a complete care guide here.
Blooming times may not align with the corresponding holidays and some will rebloom throughout the year.
The holiday name designations can vary by region and mislabelling is not uncommon. Both the common name and the botanical name, if it’s actually provided, may not be correct.
Plus, with so many varieties and generations of these plants available, the distinguishing characteristics are not always so obvious anymore. For example, the popular Christmas cactus of years past (Schlumbergera bridgesii) has scalloped edges. The newer one (S. x buckleyi) can have scalloped or point clades which makes sense since they were originally hybridized from Schlumbergera truncata (which has pointy clades) and Schlumbergera russelliana.
- Christmas cactus (Schlumbergera x buckleyi and Schlumbergera bridgesii) tend to have scalloped clades (leaves), shaped like arrowheads. Some S. x buckleyi also have pointy clades. The flowers for this group have pink pollen.
- Thanksgiving cactus (Schlumbergera truncata) clades have pointy ends. The flowers have yellow pollen.
- Easter cactus (Rhipsalidopsis) have flat, rectangular clades with slightly scalloped edges. The flower face upwards.
But, as always, it’s best to use the botanical name—if you know it, not the holiday name, to avoid heated disagreements with plant friends.
If you want more free plants, use this tutorial to propagate your holiday cactus. It’s very easy.
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