If you have a Christmas cactus that starts blooming in November, it might not be the plant you think it is. Here's how to find out.

By Derek Carwood
Updated October 05, 2020
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During the shortest days of the year, you can count on a Christmas cactus to brighten things up with its colorful flowers right around the holidays, except sometimes it seems to bloom about a month too early. What gives? If your plant seems to be jumping the gun, it's likely not a Christmas cactus at all, but a Thanksgiving cactus. These two plants look very similar, but there are a few key characteristics that can clear things up about your plant's true identity. And no matter which one it is, it will likely reward you with exotic-looking blooms during the colder months of the year.

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Closely Related, Yet Different Plants

Christmas cacti and Thanksgiving cacti belong to the same botanical genus, Schlumbergera, meaning they’re closely related. It’s easy for even the well-trained eye to mistake them for the same plant. Both grow wild in the mountains of southeastern Brazil, so they prefer things on the cool and shady side, unlike the cacti found in desert habitats. This is partly why they make such easy-care houseplants, though they do need more regular watering than a desert cactus would.

They are also beautiful, especially when in bloom. These plants feature pink, red, white, or yellow flowers on their flattened, spineless, segmented green stems (they technically don't have leaves). Though these cacti have similar-looking flowers and stems, each of these features offers clues to help you distinguish a Christmas and a Thanksgiving cactus from one another.

Left: Thanksgiving cactus flowers have yellow pollen. | Photo: Courtesy of Aaron Hyatali/Wikimedia Commons
Right: Photo: Courtesy of Peter Coxhead/Wikimedia Commons

How to Tell Christmas and Thanksgiving Cacti Apart

Thanksgiving cactus (Schlumbergera truncata) was once commonly called the “crab claw cactus” or “crab cactus" before it started being marketed around Turkey Day. It also goes by zygocactus. You can identify it by the pointy “teeth” on the sides of each stem segment. These teeth are soft, not sharp, and can vary in size, but are almost always visible on the plant to some degree.

Buy It: Zygocactus ($58, The Sill)

What we call a Christmas cactus ($3, Etsy), on the other hand, comes from a species called Schlumbergera russelliana with some S. truncata or possibly a couple of other species mixed in. The resulting hybrid is known as Schlumbergera x buckleyi and can be hard to find for sale. Its stem segments lack pointed teeth, with more scalloped or rounded edges.

Another way to tell which sort of cactus you have is to look carefully at the flowers, which can bloom anytime in the fall or early winter. Sticking out from each blossom, the cluster of long, thin anthers will be tipped with pollen. If the color of the pollen is yellow, you more than likely have a Thanksgiving cactus, and if it's pink, you've got a Christmas cactus.

Many New Varieties

When figuring out which one of these cacti you have growing in your house, consider the age of your plant for some hints. In recent years, all sorts of new varieties have been produced with characteristics that blur the differences between the two species. These are what you're more likely to find for sale nowadays, instead of the original species-type plants. So if your plant is a young one from a garden center or grocery store, chances are it's a major mishmash between Christmas and Thanksgiving cacti, and maybe a few other related species.

But if Grandma gave you a cutting off that 50-year-old plant growing on her kitchen counter, you might actually have a straight-up Thanksgiving or Christmas cactus with nothing else mixed in. It's also possible it could be a plant called Hatiora gaertneri (formerly classified as Rhipsalidopsis gaertneri), which is yet another look-alike that's commonly known as the Easter cactus ($20, Etsy) because it typically blooms in spring. 

Whether you have a Thanksgiving cactus or a Christmas cactus or something with a blended pedigree, you will enjoy these plants for what they are: easy-to-grow houseplants that often grace the holidays with their lovely flowers. Plus these long-lived plants can be passed down from generation to generation or shared with friends from a simple stem cutting rooted in a bit of damp potting soil.

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