False Christmas Cactus

Growing up my mom always called her Christmas cactus a Thanksgiving cactus because it would be in full flower by the end of November.  Being the good son, I never questioned Mom or try to correct her.  Twenty something years and a few advance degrees later, Mom was right.  The popular plant that’s now arriving in garden centers for the holiday season, Schlumbergera truncata is actually called the false Christmas cactus or Thanksgiving cactus.

Yes you have been lied to.

To get over this deception we need to dive deeper into the torrid love affair with the Christmas cactus. Turning the calendar back 177 years to 1840’s England we find William Buckley, a dedicated horticulturist, and his experiment of a cross between two species of Schlumbergera.  He crossed S. truncata with S. russelliana and created the hybrid S. x buckleyi that was christened the true Christmas cactus.  As you are sitting at home reading this you’ll be tempted to do some quick internet searches and you may come across some old literature that reference this cross erroneously as S. bridgesii which is one more layer of deceit.  You will, no doubt, find some older literature that use Zygocactus as the genus.

The plot thickens.

Now that you are staring at your false Christmas cactus dismayed and wondering where to find the real Christmas cactus you need to know a few more things.  It is hard to weed out the imposters and you need to know a little bit of botany.  The “leaves” of the Schlumbergera are actually flattened stems called cladophyll (phylloclades by some botanist).  The false Christmas cactus will have stems that have an open branch habit and the margins will have soft points or teeth.  Note: these points are not spines just deeply lobed portion of the stem.  Flowers of the false Christmas cactus will be bright and cheery in shades of pink, white, peach, and salmon.  They will be held at the end of the stems pointing slightly upwards and lasting for about 5 sometimes 7 days.  The flowers will also appear a little flat or horizontal.  The true Christmas cactus will have stems that dramatically arch downwards with a closed habit.  The margins of the stems will be rounded with small visible points or nubs.  True Christmas cactus flowers will be more rounded than the imposter and will follow the direction of the stem and point down.  Colors will be carmine, pink and reds.

As you set out on your quest to locate the true Christmas cactus you may run across a close cousin of Schlumbergera called the Easter cactus Rhipsalidopsis gaeteneri.  You’ll be happy to know that they are not of commercial importance in the garden retail industry and rarely offered.  Also, as the name implies they flower in the spring.  But if you happen to run across one . . . what’s one more plant, right?

Finally I am sure you’ve read through this article and skimmed over the genus name because you, like myself, can’t pronounce it (shlum-BER-ger-uh) and I doubt that did much to help.  A quick bit of information Schlumbergera are a group of true cacti belonging to the Cactaceae family that thrive in conditions that we normally do not associate with cacti.  They live deep within the tropical rainforest of South America and live on trees like orchids.

Good luck on your adventure and let me know if you find a true Christmas cactus to add to your collection.


Schlumbergera truncata – top Schlumbergera x buckleyi – bottom
Scott Evans
Scott Evans is a horticulture assistant with Nebraska Extension in Douglas-Sarpy Counties. A certified arborist through International Society of Arboirculture and Nebraska Arborist Association. Scott is also Tree Risk Assessment Qualified through ISA. Scott co-leads the Master Gardener program in Douglas & Sarpy counties. Along with volunteer management he provides his expertise with disease and insect identification, lawn and landscape weed management, plant health, and I.P.M. practices. He also enjoys growing many houseplants ranging from African violets to cacti and succulents. Scott has two Bachelors of Science, one in Biology (emphasis in Botany, Ecology and Environmental Science) and second in Environmental Geology from Northwest Missouri State University. He earned his Master of Agriculture from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

11 Comments Add yours

  1. Darlene Gordon says:

    Most interesting. I have a Thanksgiving Cactus BUT this plant also blooms off and on all year with the most blooms at Thanksgiving. I am hesitant to replant and it surely needs it. Fun, fun ,fun.

  2. Couldn’t you have posted a picture of the real Christmas Cactus?

    1. Scott Evans says:

      I located a picture to use but was not granted permission to use it for this blog.

      1. Pat says:

        Great article and thanks for clearing up the confusion. Guess my plant is blooming right on time!

  3. Ed says:

    I appreciate the need for a lead that draws the reader in, but with the public rapidly moving away from ornamental plants, maybe another approach next time? I understand the tongue in cheek manner in which you meant it. That is right up my alley! But members of the public who glance casuLly might think “Oh, another deception. I better not buy them anymore.” Just food for thought…

    1. Pat says:

      Relax Ed.

  4. Mary says:

    I do have. True Christmas cactus. I got a piece from Granny about 12 years ago. It’s been damaged twice but survived and gotten good size now. In Jan of this year(2017) it blossomed for the first time.

  5. Anne says:

    I’ve got a granddaughter start from my mom about 5 years ago. It started out as a 3 segment stem and has grown considerably. I was told it was a Christmas Cactus and by the looks of the stems…it would be a True Christmas Cactus not a false. I used the app Greg and it identified it as a false one. It hasn’t produced any flowers yet but this year, I do have one little tiny flower bud. The stem it was on was wilted for a bit but its starting to strengthen back up again so hoping for the flower to keep going

    1. grobigred says:

      Hi Anne
      There are 3 types of holiday cacti, the Thanksgiving, the Easter and the Christmas cactus. Each has a bit different preferred care, but for the most part they need bright light and well drained soils in winter.

  6. Maryellen says:

    Great article which clarifies the differences. I wish growers would stop marketing the Thanksgiving cactus as a Christmas cactus. I have true Christmas cactus which has been handed down in my family.

  7. Carol Hawkes says:

    I have what I have always called a Christmas cactus. I know that’s it about 100 years old. Now that I have time I would like to give it more care and have it grow much bigger.

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