Christmas Cactus vs. Thanksgiving Cactus vs. Easter Cactus: What’s The Difference?

Are you trying to decide between the Christmas, Thanksgiving, and Easter Cacti to determine which one would be the best for your home or indoor gardening space? Are all these 3 cacti different, or are they the same? In this article, gardener Emma Braby examines each of these succulents to compare the terminology, and how these plants measure up to one another.

Christmas Cactus vs Thanksgiving Cactus vs Easter Cactus

The Cactaceae family has approximately 150 genera and roughly 2,500 species found around the world. And in this guide, we will be discussing three of the most well-known holiday cacti, the Christmas, Thanksgiving, and Easter cactus.

Adding seasonal cacti into your homely decorations is a fantastic way to add color and keep things fresh. These small succulents make great houseplants and are similar to Tillandsia, and several Pothos varieties, in which all of them are very low maintenance.

In this short but concise guide, we will look at the three subtle differences between these three cacti and delve into the details of each one individually. So, whether the holiday season is upon you and you’re looking to add a splash of cacti color to your home. Or you want to make sure that you’re gifting the correct seasonal cactus to save any embarrassment, you’ve come to the right place. Let’s jump straight into the differences. 

Seasonal Cacti History 

Seasonal Cacti in Bloom
Though all three cacti look similar, the Easter cactus is in a different plant family.

The Christmas and the Thanksgiving cacti are from the Schlumbergera family, so their history is very similar. They are both tropical cacti from the rainforests in Brazil. Allen Cunningham discovered them in the early 19th century, and the genus was named after an exotic botanist called Frederic Schlumberger. 

There are six species of Schlumberger, many of which are designated holiday names. Each is named after the period in which they bloom in the Northern Hemisphere. The Thanksgiving cactus blooms slightly earlier than the Christmas cactus. But in their native lands, they both flower from April to May, so they are not called by either name. 

The Easter cactus is from the Hatiora family. This succulent is also from Brazil but from the drier forests, which is why you’ll see the difference in watering later on. Unfortunately, little is documented about the discovery of the Easter cactus. Still, it is likely to be around the same time as the Christmas and Thanksgiving cactus. 

How to Tell the Difference 

Unfortunately, all three of these holiday cacti are confused for one another. Even by shop assistants dishing out care information and online retailers who label them the same. Which does not make things any easier for us customers. Sometimes they are all thrown into one basket and labeled as the more exotic-sounding Zygocactus

Thankfully, there are three simple ways to tell the difference between the Christmas, Thanksgiving, and Easter cactus. Let’s go through them one by one to help you make the distinction. 

Leaves 

Close Up Seasonal Cacti Leaves
The leaves are one of the easiest ways to tell these cacti apart from each other.

Identifying a cactus through the shapes of its leaves is one of the easiest and quickest ways to determine what cactus you have in front of you. Although they might look similarly initially, it’s relatively simple to make the distinction when you take a closer look at the leaves. 

This cactus has flat, thinner leaves that are small and scalloped. The Thanksgiving cactus has pointier, broad leaves. It is sometimes referred to as the “crab claw cactus” because of its distinctive pointed leaves. And the Easter cactus leaves are flat, round, and scalloped on the edges. The leaves also have fine hairs. 

Blooms

Bright Blooms of Seasonal Cacti
Each seasonal cactus has a unique bloom shape and texture.

Another way to tell the difference between the three cacti is to look at the appearance of the blooms. The blooms of the Christmas cactus usually droop down in a pendulum shape and feature a brown or purple anther. The Thanksgiving bloom is similar to the Christmas bloom, but the anther is typically yellow. They are also more similar to Fuschia blooms. Easter cactus has more distinct blooms because they are larger and starburst in shape. 

Another way to identify the three is to note when the cacti bloom, but this isn’t always that simple. The buds on the Christmas cactus usually appear in November and bloom over the Christmas period. The buds on the Thanksgiving cactus appear in late fall and typically bloom at the same time as the Christmas cactus. Not so helpful! The Easter cactus blooms in early spring. 

Although the three cacti have slightly different primary colors, they are so similar that it is not a reliable way to tell the difference. Although we do not recommend relying on this method of cactus type separation, here are the most common colors for reference: 

  • Christmas cactus – pink, red, white, and yellow  
  • Thanksgiving cactus – orange, peach, red, and purple 
  • Easter cactus – orange, pink, peach, white and red 

Overall Shape 

Plant Shapes of Seasonal Cacti
The overall plant shape of each seasonal cacti is also a way to tell them apart from each other.

The final way to tell the difference between the three is to look at the overall cactus shape. This method is best saved for when the cactus is developed or mature, which does not help if you need immediate identification. 

The Christmas cactus begins by growing in an upright habit, but as the stems become longer, they begin to droop. The Thanksgiving cactus also grows in an upright habit, but they continue to grow upright rather than droop. The stems of the Easter cactus droop over time. But they are typically the smaller plant of the three.

Christmas Cactus 

Christmas Cactus Budding
This cactus blooms in the coldest time of year, which is why it is named after the holiday.

The Christmas cactus Latin name is Schlumbergera bridgessii. The buds typically appear in November and get ready to bloom over the Christmas holidays. Because this cactus blooms on the coldest days of the year, it needs slightly different care compared to other cacti. The blooms on this cactus are usually tiered and can grow up to 3 inches long. 

Care

Person Watering a Succulent
There are special guidelines to adhere to in order to for a healthy plant.

Christmas cacti are not challenging to take care of, but they have specific requirements to stick to if you want to keep them healthy. Low level to bright light is best for this cactus. Just be sure to avoid direct sunlight as it will burn the leaves. Provide it with mild houseplant fertilizer every other week. Throughout the year, it should be kept in temperatures between 60 and 70 degrees. 

Considering that this plant comes from the rainforest, moisture is also essential. Place the container on a tray of stones and water to increase moisture in the air. Thorough watering is required during the growing period (spring and summer), and the soil always needs to be moist. Never allow it to dry out. Equally, overwatering can lead to root and stem rot. 

Blooms

Pink Bloom on a Succulent
A period of dormancy is necessary for proper blooming.

Around 6 to 8 weeks before you want this plant to rebloom, you’ll need to begin the dormancy cycle. Keep it away from drafty areas. But the primary tips are to trick it into blooming by reducing light, temperature, and moisture. 

This cactus needs 12 to 14 hours of darkness every day. The best temperatures for the buds to set are between 50 and 55 degrees. Remove the tray of stones to remove moisture if it has one, and cut back on the watering. Do this until the flowers begin to bloom.

If you take care of your Christmas cacti throughout the year, it may thank you with additional blooms. It needs one month’s rest after the blooming seasons before you begin the general yearly care. 

Thanksgiving Cactus 

Indoor Cactus in a Window
Because they bloom in late fall, these plants have been named the Thanksgiving cactus.

The Thanksgiving cactus comes from the same genus as the Christmas cactus, which is why they have more similarities than the Easter cactus. Its Latin name is Schlumbergera truncate. This cactus begins to form buds in late fall. It typically flowers during the coldest days of the month. Blooms tend to last 2 to 4 months. 

Care

Indoor Cactus With Purple Tip Leaves
Too much sun can cause purple discoloration in your Thanksgiving cactus.

The Thanksgiving cactus is a tropical plant, and so it should never be allowed to dry out. Keep the soil moist, but never let it sit in water either. Otherwise, you risk root and fungal issues. Water it thoroughly, and do not water it again until the top layer of the earth is almost dry. It also needs moisture, so as the Christmas cactus, sit it on a tray of pebbles and water. 

They should be kept in temperatures between 60 and 70 degrees throughout the year. The blooms are delicate and will fall off with too much force, so be sure to take care when moving it about the home and keep it away from drafts. 

Blooms

Indoor Cactus About to Bloom
A cool, dark, and dry environment is also needed for this succulent to bloom.

A Thanksgiving cactus needs forcing into bloom in late summer to early fall. Like the Christmas cactus, it needs cooler temperatures, less water, and shorter daylight hours. Once the buds have formed, place it somewhere to achieve 12 to 14 hours of total darkness. The soil needs to be dryer than before, and remove any stone trays to reduce the water in the air. 

The temperature should be lowered to 50 and 55 degrees. They also need one month’s rest after blooming before you start the general yearly care cycle. 

Easter Cactus 

Cactus With Red Blooms
Just as the others, this plant is named after its bloom time, which is the early spring.

This cactus comes from a different genus than the other two cacti, and its Latin name is Hatiora gaertneriformally Rhipsalidopsis gaertneri. All three cacti come from the forests of Brazil. Unlike the Christmas and the Thanksgiving cacti that hail from rainforests, the Easter cactus comes from drier forests. The Easter cacti will bloom between February and late March.   

Care

Watering a Succulent with Red Flowers
This seasonal cactus has similar needs as the others, except it needs a little less water.

This succulent thrives in bright light but not direct sunlight. They need cooler temperatures and lightly moist soil. Allow the soil to dry out before watering it again. They also like a little bit of humidity. If your home is dry, place the planter on a dish filled with stones and a little water to achieve a little evaporation around the plant. 

It will need repotting once every two years in the spring. They like to be a little pot bound, so give it new soil and return it to the same container. After the blooming period, fertilize monthly with a 10-10-10 fertilizer or one with a low nitrogen count.   

Blooms

Pink Blooms on an Succulent
With special attention, you can force this plant to bloom its stunning blossoms.

As long as you have followed the care mentioned above, your Easter cactus will be ready to flower in February. But it sometimes needs a little extra help to bloom, and the encouragement can seem a little cruel. From October, you need to stop feeding it and reduce watering significantly. It requires less watering than the Christmas and the Thanksgiving cactus as it is not a tropical plant. Watering it once every 3 to 6 weeks is best.   

This succulent also needs cooler nighttime temperatures and long nights to develop buds. Bud development is optimized at temperatures of 50 degrees. In December, you should raise the temperature to 60 to 65 degrees. Each night the plant needs 12 to 14 hours of darkness. Again, a one-month rest period after the blooming season is ideal before you jump into the yearly care cycle. 

Final Thoughts 

The Christmas, Thanksgiving, and Easter cactus are all very similar. Especially the Christmas and the Thanksgiving cactus that come from the same plant family. But thankfully, there are ways to tell them apart. The quickest and most reliable way to tell them apart is to look at the structure of their leaves. 

Thankfully, all of these cactus are relatively simple to care for. The only hardship is that they all need forcing into dormancy if you want to achieve the bright and beautiful blooms they are cherished for. The last thing you want to do is gift an Easter cactus at Christmas because it won’t pack the seasonal color punch it should. Plus, you might end up feeling a little silly. 

But stick to our identification tips, and you’re sure to be the font of all seasonal cactus knowledge. And you might be able to teach the shop assistants and online plant retailers a thing or two.  

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