How to Plant, Grow, and Care for Thanksgiving Cactus
A quintessential holiday cactus, Schlumbergera truncata makes a wonderful addition to your Thanksgiving décor and your houseplant collection. Gardening expert Madison Moulton explains the tricks and tips to keep this plant happy and flowering.
Whether you’re looking for living Thanksgiving décor, a bright pop of color around the holidays, or simply a beautiful flowering houseplant, Thanksgiving cactus checks all the boxes. It is particularly popular around November but makes an equally alluring houseplant for the rest of the year when it is not in flower.
There are some tricks to getting these plants to look their best around Thanksgiving time, but they aren’t really considered difficult to care for. If you’re a beginner wondering whether this plant is right for you, you’re in the right place.
Plant Type Houseplant
Native Area Brazil
Exposure Partial shade
Bloom Time Fall
Height 12” – 24”
Watering Requirements Moderate
Pests & Diseases Mealybug, spider mites, root rot
Soil Type Well-draining cactus or orchid mix
What Is It?
Thanksgiving cactus is known first and foremost for its bright and intricate flowers that pop up at the perfect time for the holiday they are named after. As a holiday cactus, it’s often compared to or confused with the Christmas cactus. But while there are some similarities, they are still different species with unique traits.
Scientifically known as Schlumbergera truncata, this cactus is not a ‘cactus’ in the traditional sense. It originates from jungle environments, growing as an epiphyte attached to trees. Indigenous to warm and balmy South America, this plant naturally thrives under the canopies of tall trees. This partially shaded environment matches the conditions often found in many homes, which explains why it is kept as a houseplant.
The characteristic flowers appear late fall, as long as they receive the right care. For the rest of the year, you can enjoy them for their interesting shape and cascading nature.
Thanksgiving Cactus Vs. Christmas Cactus
Each of the holiday cacti looks remarkably similar, and it can be hard to tell them apart at first glance. Thanksgiving and Christmas cacti are often compared, with very similar flowers and overall shapes. But, if you look closely, there are a few things that set it apart:
- Stems: Thanksgiving cactus stem segments have serrated rather than rounded edges.
- Flowers: Thanksgiving cactus blooms in late November, as opposed to late December.
- Form: Thanksgiving cactus stems remain upright rather than cascading down like a Christmas cactus.
It’s important to understand which species you’re dealing with, especially if you rely on the plant to flower at a certain time.
How to Grow
If you understand their native environments and try to match conditions as best as possible, Thanksgiving cactus is a breeze to grow. It can be a little tricky to get them to flower at the right time, but beyond that, they are remarkably beginner-friendly.
While they appreciate plenty of bright, indirect light for strong flowering, this species is not fond of full sun – despite what the ‘cactus’ in the name may make you believe.
The stems are sensitive to excessive direct sunlight, which can lead to a yellowing or even a reddish tint to the leaves, indicating stress. An east-facing window that receives gentle, direct sun in the morning and indirect light for the rest of the day is ideal.
When it comes to flowering, these plants require periods of darkness to encourage bud formation. Keeping them in around 12 hours of darkness daily over several weeks will signal to the plant that it’s time to start producing flowers. This is easier indoors, where control over light exposure is easier.
Once they start flowering, avoid keeping the plant in low-light areas for much of the day. Lack of sunlight will prohibit flowering and can lead to a higher risk of rot if you’re not watering carefully.
Imagining a typical cactus, you may think of dry soil and little to no watering. However, while these epiphytes hold some moisture in their leaves, they are not accustomed to the same sandy and dry conditions.
In moist and humid jungles, Thanksgiving cacti absorb moisture from the air and tree gaps. They appreciate regular watering but also need plenty of oxygen around their roots to avoid rot and stunted growth.
If you’ve planted them in the right soil, you can treat them like you would other epiphytes, like orchids. Give them a deep watering whenever the soil starts to dry out, ensuring any excess drains out the bottom of the pot before you replace the plant.
After blooming, growth slows, and your cactus won’t require as much attention to stay happy. The soil can dry out a bit more between watering sessions, mimicking the natural cycles in its native habitat.
As their epiphytic roots reach into the gaps of towering trees in their native habitats, regular potting soil or even garden soil won’t quite match up to their needs. A well-draining, nutrient-rich soil mix that leaves plenty of air around the roots is essential if you want the plants to flower or merely live longer than a few months.
The soil mix you choose should be loose and airy, allowing water to drip through while also providing enough retention to keep the roots lightly moist. My recommended mix combines potting soil with perlite, coconut coir, and bark for a chunky and well-draining medium. You can also use a well-draining cacti and succulent mix if you already have some lying around.
Temperature and Humidity
Temperature and humidity are vital conditions to control to ensure successful flowering. Rather than the hot and dry conditions many members of the cactus family require, the Thanksgiving cactus appreciates jungle conditions like many other houseplants.
Indoors, this translates to moderate to warm temperatures and relatively high humidity. Around 70F is ideal for consistent growth throughout the year. Rapid fluctuations in temperature may confuse the plant and impact flowering time. Around Thanksgiving, slightly cooler temperatures will trigger flowering.
An integral part of keeping conditions consistent is avoiding positions with frequent drafts, such as those in front of an open window or door. Similarly, keep your plant far away from heaters or air conditioners.
Humidity plays an equally pivotal role in health. These plants thrive in high humidity, ideally above 50%, to match conditions in their native habitats. They can handle slightly lower humidity but may face growth problems if the air is too dry, including a lack of flowers.
There are a few tricks you can try if your indoor humidity isn’t quite what this plant prefers. Grouping several plants together, placing the pot on a tray filled with pebbles and water, or placing the plant in high-humidity rooms are ways to raise the ambient humidity slightly.
But if your indoor air is very dry, consider using a humidifier to ensure this plant (and any other houseplants you may have) are much happier in their homes.
For strong growth and prolific flowering in containers, a regular fertilizing routine is essential. While good nutrition starts with good soil, your plants will still need an extra boost to give them everything they need to grow and flower.
Luckily, you don’t need anything fancy – a balanced liquid fertilizer will deliver everything the plant needs, replacing any nutrients lost by absorption or overhead watering. Ensure you follow the recommended dosage on the fertilizer packaging, as an excess can cause root growth and stunt growth rather than boost it.
How often you fertilize will depend on the product, but it’s generally best to apply liquid fertilizer around once per month. After flowering, you can also slow fertilizing to give the roots a little break.
Once the blooming season ends, a quick pruning session will help remove any problematic areas to promote strong growth the following season. Gently trimming back the stems in spring can help promote new growth, encourage branching, and, by extension, deliver even more flowers each year.
Deadheading (gently removing spent flowers) can also help maintain the aesthetic appeal of the cactus throughout the season. Not only does this make the plant look tidier, but it also directs energy toward producing new flowers.
Vigilance also falls under maintenance, particularly concerning pests and diseases. Keep a close eye out for annoying pests like mealybugs or common diseases like root rot to resolve the issue before it takes over.
Schlumbergera truncata is best propagated from stem cuttings, allowing you to expand your collection year after year without spending an extra cent. The process is also incredibly simple, even for beginners who have not tried houseplant propagation yet.
Start by carefully choosing a healthy and damage-free stem, ideally one with three segments, for the best chances of rooting. Using a sharp, sterilized knife or shears, make a clean cut into the stem, ensuring minimal damage to the parent plant and the cutting.
The next step is (somewhat) optional but does help avoid rotting in cacti and other succulent plants. Leave the segments in a cool, dry location for a day or two to allow the stem to develop a callous and heal slightly before planting. This barrier will limit the chances of rot, increasing your success rate. Although it requires some patience, it’s far better than having all your cuttings rot before they can root.
Root in Soil
Once the cut end has developed a callous, prepare a small pot with a well-draining potting mix. I use a combination of coconut coir and perlite to root cuttings in the soil, but you can also add a bit of orchid bark to boost drainage.
Gently insert the calloused end of the cuttings into the soil, ensuring the root side is down. If you plant in the wrong orientation, there is no chance your cuttings will be able to develop roots upside down. Water gently and place the pot in a warm area with bright indirect light to promote root growth.
In a few weeks, you should notice the cutting beginning to establish roots, indicated by new growth or resistance when lightly tugged. Adjust your care as the plant grows to provide the right moisture and nutrients at the right time.
This plant is beginner-friendly, but there are a few areas where you may trip up. Look out for these common problems to return your plant to good health in no time.
Bud drop occurs due to sudden changes in temperature, light, or, less frequently, humidity. Keep the environmental conditions consistent, especially during the budding and blooming phase. Avoid moving the plant around when flowering. Choose an ideal position for growth and stick to it until flowering is complete.
Root rot is caused by excessive watering or, more commonly, a lack of drainage in the soil. A new potting mix amended with perlite and orchid bark to boost drainage can resolve soil issues.
For overwatering, adjust your routine and keep the plant in a bright area. You may need to trim the roots back to remove the root rot fungus and stop it from spreading.
Mealybugs and spider mites commonly plague Thanksgiving cacti. Identified by their white, cottony appearance, mealybugs can be controlled using neem oil or insecticidal soap. Fine webbing between stem segments indicates an issue with spider mites, treated similarly to mealybugs.
Discoloration often results from excessive sunlight or inadequate watering. Adjusting the light conditions to maintain bright, indirect light throughout the day without too much exposure to direct sun. A regular watering routine (in other words, not under or overwatering) can also help turn discolored segments green again.
Etiolation, or stretching or elongation of the plant’s foliage, is caused by inadequate light. A lack of sun will cause the plant to stretch out toward the nearest light source, negatively impacting growth. Move the container to a brighter position without going to the opposite extreme. Within a few weeks, new growth should return to normal, but you may want to prune back stretched areas to improve the overall look of the plant.
Frequently Asked Questions
Why is my Thanksgiving cactus not blooming?
This plant needs a few weeks of darker days (around 12-14 hours per day) to push the plant to develop buds. If they don’t receive much darkness in the position they are placed in indoors, place the plant in a darker room to simulate short days and long nights. If it’s still not blooming and that is not the cause, look for differences in environment.
What’s the difference between a Thanksgiving and Christmas cactus?
While they are both holiday-blooming cacti, these two plants are different species. The most notable difference is that they bloom at different times, hence the common names. However, you can also look at the shape of the segments to tell the difference between the two. The edges of the Thanksgiving cactus are slightly serrated, while the Christmas cactus is smooth.
Can you grow it outdoors?
As tropical plants, they can grow outdoors in warm tropical and sub-tropical regions. Those in USDA zones 10 and above can enjoy growing these plants outside year-round, but in other areas, it’s best to keep them indoors and protected from the cold. Indoor areas also allow you to better control their environmental conditions, translating to improved growth.
Following these tips, you’ll be able to keep your Thanksgiving cactus happy and (most importantly) blooming year after year.