THE CACTUS PLANT I TREASURE MOST comes not from the desert, but from the mountains of Brazil, where it grows, like the orchid, in the crotches of trees. I’m referring to the magnificent Schlumbergera truncate, pictured above. How to grow this easy-to-find “Thanksgiving Cactus,” and how to tell it apart from the rare “Christmas Cactus:”
From late October through November, the “Thanksgiving” cactus puts on a show that mocks every other resident of my window garden. This is when some two dozen fuschia-like flowers drip from all the leaf tips which cover the plant’s five-inch pot.
If you don’t already own one of these beauties in purple, pink, red, yellow, or white, my advice is to obtain one in early November. Your florist is sure to have one already in bud or bloom at this time. I can tell you the plant is a terrific investment, for it increases in both grace and dignity with each passing year.
Culture: Truncate is all the better for a humus-rich but well-draining soil. My three plants flourish in 2 parts leaf mold and 1 part perlite. If you don’t have access to leaf mold, a commercial peat and perlite potting mix will do.
For better growth, and hence more blossoms, be sure to pamper this succulent during the warm-weather months. Mine lounge and luxuriate on the shady and sheltered front porch all summer. I keep the fountainous growth coming along with every-other-day waterings, and frequent applications of all-purpose plant food.
Summer is also the time I pinch off segments to encourage branching. The broken segments, if inserted 3 to a 4-inch pot, can be rooted for new plants. These often flower their very first year.
Like the poinsettia, truncate produces its flowers in response to shortening day-lengths. In September all food must be withheld, and watering decreased to once weekly. Then, in October, bring the plant to a cool, dim windowsill, and let it remain there until every leaf tip is lit with color. (If your plant refuses to set buds, give it long, 12-hour nights in a dark closet for thee weeks, and only dim light during daytime.)
When buds begin to open, move the cactus to a light (not sunny) place. The plant will look especially decorative if perched on a stand or bracket where its pendulous stems can freely cascade. Cool temperatures and weekly water will insure a lush bloom period that lasts from four to six weeks.
When flowering ceases, decrease water and set the cacti in full sun. That is, until warm weather invites its return to a shaded, sheltered position outdoors.
It irks me to no end that florists commonly mislabel the Thanksgiving cactus, Schlumbergera truncate, as the Christmas one. The true “Christmas” cactus is Schlumbergera bridgesii. Here is how you can tell the difference between the two (even if your florist can’t): Truncate, above, has two or three jagged points on every leaf segment, and its bloom time, under natural circumstances, runs from late October through November. Bridgesii has smooth, not jagged, leaf segments, and typically flowers in January or February.
The Christmas cactus is very difficult to find these days. But who cares? The Thanksgiving cactus offers a much broader color-range than its late-blooming relative.
Update! In May of 2013, I acquired a cutting of the official Christmas Cactus (S. bridgesii). The cutting rooted without a hitch, and now, in January, 2014, the plant is dripping with bloom. As you can see, the flowers are similar to those of the “Thanksgiving” plant. But they are definitely smaller, and more pendulous in form.
So which flowering cactus do you have? The more common Thanksgiving-type, or the rare Christmas specimen?
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