When it comes to low-maintenance, easy-to-care-for houseplants, many of us opt for a snake plant or philodendron instead of a succulent. However, two varieties of flowering cacti—Thanksgiving cacti and Christmas cacti—are here to give your trailing pathos a run for its money. Identified by their segmented stems and vibrant flowers that bloom in the winter, these two cacti behave more like traditional jungle flora than desert plants.
Low-light and cool-weather friendly, they’re some of the easiest houseplants to keep alive, but it can be difficult to tell them apart. In fact, many garden centers and stores simply label them “Holiday Cactus” rather than list their true variety. It’s important to know which you’ve bought to know when to give it the right conditions to bloom. If you need help determining which version you have or which one is right for you, we have you covered. Read on to learn the differences between a Thanksgiving cactus and a Christmas cactus.
Thanksgiving Cactus vs. Christmas Cactus
Both plants are native to the mountains of Southern Brazil, so unlike desert cacti these varieties prefer conditions on the cooler and shadier side, making them ideal winter plants. They’re very closely related, so it’s easy to mistake one for the other. With similar shape (and color) flowers blooming from flattened, spineless stems, the cacti look the same at first glance. Read on for a few clues to help you tell the difference.
Historically known as the “crab claw cactus,” the Thanksgiving cactus is also known as the zygocactus. Identifiers include pointy “teeth” on the sides of each stem and yellow pollen. Thanksgiving cacti are more commonly available and less fragile than Christmas cacti thanks to their upright form. A Thanksgiving cactus doesn’t drape the way a Christmas cactus does.
The Christmas cactus lacks those soft yet pointy teeth on its stem, which feature more rounded, scalloped edges than the Thanksgiving cactus. Its pollen is more of a pink hue. While both plants can bloom anywhere between late fall and early winter, Christmas cacti are known for blooming slightly later, closer to its namesake holiday.
What Is a Zygocactus?
Nowadays, many Christmas and Thanksgiving cacti are blended varieties, a mix of the two types. However, the older your plant is, the higher the likelihood you have a pure holiday cactus. So if your plant is a young one from a garden center or grocery store, chances are it’s a mishmash of Christmas and Thanksgiving cactus species and maybe even a few other related species unless otherwise stated.
Whether you have a Thanksgiving cactus or Christmas cactus, you can enjoy it for being an easygoing houseplant no matter its true scientific nomenclature. These plants can live for generations with the right care, and will always mark the holiday season with their vibrant blooms.
Kate McGregor is House Beautiful’s SEO Editor. She has covered everything from curated decor round-ups and shopping guides, to glimpses into the home lives of inspiring creatives, for publications such as ELLE Decor, Domino, and Architectural Digest’s Clever.