Christmas cacti are undeniably among the most cherished houseplants that find a cozy spot in homes all around. Their low-maintenance care and enduring charm make them household staples.
Perhaps your grandmother generously shared a cutting with you when you first moved into your apartment, or you were gifted one at an office Christmas party, and it has outlasted that job by miles.
If you’re considering joining this exclusive club of Christmas cacti enthusiasts or are seeking a delightful gift for a fellow plant lover, now is the perfect time to make a purchase.
Christmas cacti are in abundance.
However, before you hastily choose the nearest plant, it’s essential to understand how to select the right one, ensuring it will thrive for decades to come.
Christmas cacti belong to the Schlumbergera family. These hardy succulents are epiphytic by nature, thriving in the most unusual locations in their native habitat. They cling to rocky surfaces, flourish in the nooks of tree branches, or wherever they can find a small pocket of soil and organic debris. Then, after a period of dormancy during the winter, they burst into a stunning display of tropical-colored blooms. It’s no surprise that they have been cherished houseplants for generations.
Take that, Monstera, with your ordinary, unfurling leaves.
It’s also no wonder that stores are brimming with these spiky green plants adorned with tiny buds, eagerly awaiting their moment to shine during the holiday season. They make ideal last-minute gifts or festive table centerpieces.
However, let’s clarify one thing: many of the “Christmas cacti” available in stores right now aren’t actually Christmas cacti.
Yes, it’s true – the retail world might be pulling a fast one on us.
The plants you come across in big-box stores and local supermarkets belong to the Schlumbergera family but aren’t genuine Christmas cacti. What you’re seeing is often referred to as the Thanksgiving cactus because it typically blooms closer to Thanksgiving. Specifically, these are Schlumbergera truncata, whereas the true Christmas cactus is the Schlumbergera buckleyi. Finding buckleyi in stores is quite rare.
These days, it’s not uncommon to find all Schlumbergera varieties labeled as ‘Holiday Cacti,’ just to add a touch of confusion. However, don’t let this deter you from bringing one home.
Any Schlumbergera variety would make a delightful addition to your houseplant collection, and truncata showcases a range of vibrant colors when in bloom. Its segmented growth pattern resembles a cascading green waterfall when it’s not flowering. When the holiday season arrives, whether it’s Thanksgiving, Christmas, or somewhere in between, the blooms are undeniably spectacular.
To maintain consistency, let’s refer to the Schlumbergera available in stores at this time of year as the “holiday cactus.” If you have your heart set on a true Christmas cactus, don’t worry. Towards the end of this article, we’ll guide you on how to distinguish between them and direct you to find the genuine article.
Selecting a Healthy Holiday Cactus: A Guide
1. Location Matters
When you encounter holiday cacti positioned near the chilly draft of a store’s entrance, resist the temptation and continue your quest.
Holiday cacti, part of the Schlumbergera family, hail from tropical regions and do not tolerate cold temperatures well. Exposure to drafts and cold air can lead to the premature dropping of buds and even the loss of entire segments. While you can still purchase these plants, it’s unlikely that the buds will survive long enough to bloom.
Moreover, though less common, avoid buying holiday cacti exposed to extremely high temperatures. Once, I visited a high-end garden center where an entire tray of cacti was displayed right in front of a gas fireplace. I couldn’t help but think, “Well, those are toast.”
2. Inspect the Segments and Crown
Unlike regular leaves, holiday cacti have segments known as cladodes. To assess a plant’s health, get a bit tactile.
Gently squeeze one of the cladodes on the plant you’re eyeing; it should feel firm and substantial. If it feels thin, papery, or appears wrinkled, it’s best to move on. This is often a sign of underwatering or potential root rot, and the plant is unlikely to retain its blooms.
Additionally, examine the crown, where the segments emerge from the soil. Look for any yellowing at the base or signs of segments rotting at the crown. These are clear indications of overwatering. Again, it’s advisable to avoid such plants. The crown should be securely rooted and exhibit a deep emerald green color.
3. Soil Conditions Matter
Over the years, I’ve encountered numerous waterlogged Schlumbergera plants in stores. Apparently, many retail workers believe that all plants require abundant watering, and then some. Unfortunately, this can spell disaster for Schlumbergera, as they are susceptible to root and crown rot.
In their natural habitat, these epiphytes grow in loose, fast-draining organic material. It’s hardly what you’d call soil when they’re clinging to the side of a boulder. They despise having consistently wet “feet.” Yet, nurseries often pot them in standard potting soil and ship them off to local stores once they’re covered in buds.
Considering that all nursery pots have drainage holes, it’s quite remarkable how often holiday cacti end up drowning in excess water.
Avoid soil that is waterlogged or shows signs of mold or fungal growth on the surface. If the selection is limited, opt for an underwatered plant over an overwatered one. Underwatered plants are more likely to recover.
4. Examine the Roots
If possible, gently squeeze the sides of the nursery pot to loosen the plant. Gradually remove the plant from the pot and inspect its roots. Healthy roots should be white to slightly cream-colored. Brown roots are a telltale sign of root rot, and it’s advisable to choose a different plant.
Both the roots and the soil should emit a pleasant earthy scent, not a musty or moldy odor.
5. Protect Your Purchase on the Way Home
Once you’ve chosen the perfect holiday cactus, double-bag it and seal the top to shield it from cold air. Avoid leaving these delicate plants in a cold vehicle for extended periods. If you have other stops to make or won’t be heading home right away, bring the cactus inside with you. Alternatively, make acquiring your holiday cactus the last stop on your journey home.
Making the Most of Your Find
Sometimes, you have to make the best of the options available. Holiday cacti are generally quite resilient. Even if your chosen plant drops its buds this year, you can ensure it blooms beautifully next year by following my comprehensive Christmas Cactus Care Guide.
Distinguishing Thanksgiving and Christmas Cacti
At first glance, it’s easy to assume they all look alike, but a closer look reveals the differences.
Thanksgiving Cactus – Schlumbergera truncata
The segments of Schlumbergera truncata have toothed edges, giving them a serrated appearance.
Christmas Cactus – Schlumbergera buckleyi
In contrast, the cladodes of the Christmas cactus have rounded nodules instead of toothed edges.
(If you encounter one with oval segments that are indented rather than toothed or rounded, you’ve stumbled upon the even rarer Easter cactus.)
For those determined to acquire a genuine Christmas cactus, the easiest way is to request a cutting from a friend or family member. Don’t hesitate to ask for a segment or two if you spot one in a business setting. You might receive a few curious glances, but at least you’ll have an icebreaker every time you visit the dentist.
“Hi, Tracey! How’s that plant you got during last year’s cleaning?”
If sourcing cuttings locally proves challenging, your best option is to explore platforms like Etsy or eBay. A quick search for “Schlumbergera buckleyi cutting” will yield numerous choices. When ordering cuttings online, I always sort them by distance to minimize the time they spend in transit via the postal service.
Ensure that what you’re obtaining is indeed a Christmas cactus and not a Thanksgiving cactus. Pay close attention to those segments!