Most people aren’t aware there is a difference between Christmas cactus and Thanksgiving cactus. I had only seen the latter, until last December. I saw one at the Winn, MI antique store and then the same week, at my Aunt Gloria’s home. Of course, usually, everyone just calls both Christmas cactus, but that isn’t correct. How can you tell the difference, you ask? The true Christmas cactus (Schlumbergera bridgesii) blooms later in the year than the Thanksgiving cactus (Schlumbergera truncata). The easiest way to tell them apart, though, is the shape of their stem segments or phylloclades (cladodes). The Latin for leaf is phyllo- and for branch is -clade. They both have these flattened stem segments, but the Thanksgiving cactus has segments with small pointed appendages, whereas the Christmas cactus has rounded edges. By the way, they really are cacti- epiphytic cacti, as they grow in Brazilian rainforests in trees, but cacti none the less.
I immediately asked for cuttings from my Aunt and received them. I let them dry for a few days and potted them up in well-drained soil. Of course, December isn’t the best time to start cuttings, but I have them under lights and dipped them in rooting gel. If they don’t take, I know where to get more. It is best to trim your cactus after blooming, in the Spring and propagate the cuttings at that time. Every time you take a cutting, two segments will grow from that point, thus ensuring twice the amount of flowers next year. So, even if you don’t want to propagate your plant, trim your plant lightly to stimulate more segments to grow.
I discovered the cactus came from my Grandma Elnore Eldred, who received her plant from my Great-Grandma Alice Eldred, so this cactus has been in our family for a very long time. I wish I could find out where it came from before that, but no one is still alive who would know. I am so excited to have a plant that has been in my family for so long.
I have a picture of my Great– Grandma Christina Baldwin on my Mom’s side, who is photographed in front of a huge cactus, but alas, no one has a piece of it left. The picture was taken in March of 1949. Quite often, these plants will bloom more than once and this one definitely has buds and blooms.
The owner of the Winn antique shop said his cactus was very old, and very big until last year, when he noticed it was dropping a lot of its stems. When he investigated the container, he found that the drainage hole had become blocked and the plant was waterlogged. This was a hard lesson to learn. This can happen because the roots fill the hole, or because the salt buildup from fertilizer can accumulate and block it. It is always a good idea, especially with very old plants, to check the drainage hole occasionally and make sure it is free of roots and salt build up. Luckily, after letting it dry out and re-potting, he saved his plant.
Whether you have a Christmas or Thanksgiving cactus, keeping it growing and passing it down through the generations is a great family tradition and one your kids and grandkids will appreciate.