The first Christmas cactus I ever encountered was at my great-grandma’s house. Bedstemor, as we called her, was a respected African violet breeder and grower.
She even appeared in the newspaper where I grew up in a feature about her growing efforts. For a young kid, that seemed like the highest honor a gardener could achieve!
I admired her beautiful violets and respected her extensive knowledge about her chosen species, but I was always curious about the one strange plant in the corner of her manicured living room.
It wasn’t like the others, sporting unusual leaves, drooping foliage, and flowers that appeared in the humdrum of winter.
I never asked about it (bedstemor was intimidating), and she never told me about it, but I eventually figured out that it was what is commonly known as a holiday cactus. I was smitten from the moment I saw it blooming when almost everything else was dormant.
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I’m a spring lover, and winter gets me down sometimes because I can’t garden and grow as much as I want to. But here was a plant that came alive in the darkest time of year.
It gave me a boost then and now, and I have one in my home all the time for the cheerful inspiration it gives me just as I’m considering a move to the tropics.
I can totally understand how these plants are so popular in the Northern Hemisphere, far from their original home in Brazil.
So enough about me. I’m sure you have your own love story with these plants and are just wondering what makes one different from the other.
All of the plants commonly known as holiday cacti are epiphytes or in rare cases lithophytes, which means they grow on other trees or shrubs, and sometimes rocks.
They aren’t parasites, though, drawing energy from a host. They just use the host as a support, deriving nutrients from the debris and rain that comes down through the rainforest canopy.
All types of holiday cacti species are from the Brazilian rainforests in high elevations, and they share many similar physical characteristics.
If you aren’t familiar with the subtle nuances, they all look extremely similar, so you can see why they are grouped together under the term “holiday cactus.”
But included in this moniker there are many different species, hybrids, and cultivars, all with their own unique shapes, bloom time, and colors. It just takes some time to cut through the confusion out there about them.
We’re going to make it all clear as we talk about the different holiday cactus varieties.
Here’s what I’ll cover:
Before we talk about the different types, we need to clarify our terms so we’re on the same page.
The leaf-like structures on the plants that hold the flowers aren’t actually leaves at all.
If the plant forms leaves, these are typically inconspicuous and brown or green in color. The flattened, leaf-like parts are actually segmented stems known as cladodes or phylloclades.
Looking closely at the cladodes will help you determine broadly which type you’re dealing with.
Along the margins of the cladodes are little horns, spikes, or teeth, which is a type of growth known as “dentate.”
The flowers emerge at the end of the cladodes from growths known as areoles, and it is this growth that defines these as true cacti rather than succulents.
This is a confusing group of plants if you ask retailers and botanists.
Those commonly referred to as Thanksgiving cactus are sometimes sold as Christmas, and vice versa; and often the hybrids are sold under the “Christmas” or “Thanksgiving” moniker as well.
Easter types might be sold as “holiday” and any hybrid using an Easter species might be classified as a Thanksgiving or Christmas.
Basically, it’s hard to identify them based on the common names.
Broadly, you can assume that the plants are categorized by when they bloom, but that’s not always the case – “Christmas” tends to be a catch-all term.
S. kautskyi, for example, blooms in late summer but is commonly called Christmas cactus.
Then, there is the sorting of the genera. All of the holiday cacti plants used to be classified as species in the Schlumbergera genus, but many have since been shuffled around into the Hatiora or Rhipsalidopsis genera.
Unless you check out the botanical name, you might have a hard time telling which one you’re buying when you’re out shopping, and the botanical name isn’t always listed.
Most of the plants that you find in stores are hybrids, usually between S. russelliana and S. truncata, known as S. x buckleyi.
So, now that we’ve really muddied the waters, let’s filter through the info.
S. x buckleyi is what experts consider the true Christmas cactus. It’s a hybrid cross of S. russelliana and S. truncata, and all of the plants are sterile, so you can’t propagate them from seed.
Remember the plant bedstemor grew that sparked my interest? It’s highly likely that it was one of these.
It was originally cultivated in 1852 by breeder William Buckley at the Rollisson Nurseries in England. Since then, cuttings have been used to propagate the majority of new plants, and it has become the one that you will typically find in stores.
The cladodes are long and smooth with gently scalloped edges, and the plant blooms in late November through February, which is why we call it the Christmas cactus. The flowers are usually red or magenta, but some are expanding beyond these hues.
S. kautskyi was discovered in 1991 in the southernmost tropics of Brazil, so it is only now catching on in the commercial market.
It has cladodes with short teeth that end in a blunt edge rather than a pointed tip. The segments vary dramatically in length, lacking the uniformity of some species.
The flowers are purple to fuchsia and appear before any other species. They begin popping up in late summer and last through November – not at Christmastime at all!
Native to the tropical mountains of southeastern Brazil, S. orssichiana isn’t commonly seen growing as a houseplant, but hybrids of it are.
This species has pink flowers held somewhat vertically and they can appear three times each year, starting in late summer, again in early winter, and finally in early spring. It has spiked phylloclades, similar to those of S. truncata.
As one of the primary parent plants of many of the holiday cacti on the market, you’ve probably seen S. russelliana and didn’t realize it.
The flowers, which hang downwards, are bright pinkish-red and appear later than most other species in the Schlumbergera genus.
You’ll typically see them appear in February to April, though they can persist through June.
In the wild, this species only appears in a tiny part of southeastern Brazil in the mountains.
S. russelliana can be identified by the irregularly and subtly notched edges of the rounded cladodes and the large, long, pinkish-red flowers with curving petals.
Formerly known as S. bridgesii, you will often see it listed under this name.
It tends to have a pendulous growth habit and blooms longer than the hybrid (S. x. buckleyi) that is considered the true Christmas cactus.
Easter cactus, Rhipsalidopsis gaertneri, (syn. S. gaertneri, H. gaertneri) is an outlier. Its taxonomy is unsettled, and it has been reclassified several times in recent decades.
Sometimes called Whitsun cactus, this species indigenous to the southeastern Brazil rainforest and blooms late in the holiday season.
It doesn’t look entirely different from those in the Schlumbergera genus. In fact, to the uninitiated, it looks pretty darn similar. The spring blossoms can be red, orange, or white and are star-shaped rather than tubular.
To differentiate this one from the other types, look for the rounded cladodes. These sometimes have golden-brown bristles at the end. These bristles are the leaves of the plant.
R. rosea (syn. H. rosea and S. rosea) is a parent of many Easter hybrids and is sometimes called the dwarf or rose Easter cactus.
It’s a repeat bloomer, typically starting in the early spring and reblooming in the fall.
It’s closely related to the Easter species (R. gaertneri) and comes from the same region of Brazil.
The flowers, which appear around Easter, are rose pink and extremely fragrant. The phylloclades are gently scalloped.
S. truncata is typically known as Thanksgiving cactus because of the period when it blooms. You might also see it called “false” Christmas cactus, crab, or Christmas cactus.
The pink, orange, or white flowers appear right around the time when people are defrosting their turkeys, mashing up potatoes, and setting up cardboard tables for the kids to sit at.
It might bloom a second time in February if it’s really happy.
You can distinguish this one by its pointed teeth at the tips of the cladodes. The shape is often compared to a crab claw, though it doesn’t always have the two large teeth at the end that create this resemblance. It might just have one, or it might have three.
Most cultivars have flowers that are held horizontally, which is how the species plant appears.
4. Other Holiday Species
S. lutea (syn. H. epiphylloides) isn’t like the others. I mean, it’s the same in that if you saw it sitting in a room with a bunch of other holiday cacti, you probably couldn’t call it out.
Except for the gorgeous yellow flowers. While most holiday cacti have blossoms in red or purple hues, this one is sunny yellow.
Hailing from southeast Brazil, there are two subspecies: lutea and bradei.
They have elongated phylloclades with gently toothed margins and a subtle triangular shape.
S. x reginae is a hybrid between S. orssichiana, which hails from the mountains of southern Brazil, and S. truncata.
This one breaks with the typical holiday naming tradition. It’s sometimes called queen cactus and is recognized for its elongated phylloclades with distinct teeth on the margins.
The weeping blossoms, which appear in late fall, are pinky-purple and might have some white.
These aren’t widely available, but specialty retailers are starting to carry some beautiful cultivars such as ‘Dark Queen,’ with its blood-red blossoms, and fuchsia-flowered ‘Bristol Queen,’ the first one to be available commercially.
These are considered a bit fussier and more difficult to raise than some of the more commonly available specimens.
I know it’s confusing, all the different names. But all that you need to know is that these plants are generally pretty similar and can be raised the same way. Check out our guide to growing Christmas cactus to learn more!
So unless you’re looking for something specific, just find one you like and enjoy it, and don’t worry about labels.
When did you first discover holiday cactus? Which do you prefer? Share with us in the comments section below!
Understanding the different species and hybrids is only the beginning to making the most of this festive plant.
If you’d like to learn more, here a few Schlumbergera guides that you might want to take a look at next: