How to Grow and Care for the Thanksgiving Cactus

A Thanksgiving cactus (Schlumbergera truncata) with pink blooms in a terracotta pot.

Galina Sviryiaeva / Getty Images

The Thanksgiving cactus (Schlumbergera truncata) is a popular tropical cactus that is sold around the holidays for its gorgeous and prolific flowers. As its common name indicates, the Thanksgiving cactus is known for blooming around Thanksgiving, bringing a splash of color into your home just as the weather outdoors is getting colder. 

It is one of three common holiday cacti that are often confused with one another: the Thanksgiving cactus, the Christmas cactus, and the Easter cactus. While they all look similar, they are technically three different species of Schlumbergera with unique care requirements. Learn how to care for your Thanksgiving cactus and you will be rewarded with a show of gorgeous flowers just in time for the holidays.

Botanical Name Schlumbergera truncata 
Common Name  Thanksgiving cactus, crab cactus, false Christmas cactus, holiday cactus, winter cactus
Family  Cactaceae
Plant Type  Cactus
Mature Size  12-24 in. long, 12-24 in. wide
Sun Exposure  Partial, shade
Soil Type  Moist but well-drained
Soil pH  Acidic
Bloom Time  Fall
Flower Color  Red, pink, orange, white
Hardiness Zones  10a, 10b, 11a, 11b, 12a, 12b
Native Area  South America
Close up shot of a Thanksgiving cactus bloom.

MariaBrzostowska / Getty Images

Thanksgiving Cactus Care

These tropical cacti are surprisingly easy to keep happy indoors. They do well in typical household conditions and don’t need to be fussed over. Native to the tropical and subtropical regions of Brazil, the Thanksgiving cactus is not your typical cactus—it is actually an epiphyte that grows naturally from trees and branches in jungle environments. This means that its care differs drastically from desert cacti, and there are a couple of important things you will need to keep in mind when it comes to caring for this popular holiday cactus.

Light

In the spring and summer, the Thanksgiving cactus does best in medium indirect light. Prior to blooming in the fall, move it to a brighter location, but avoid direct sun. A spot that gets bright, indirect light is perfect. 

Soil

In its natural environment, the Thanksgiving cactus grows from trees, surviving off of the decaying organic matter from the bark. This means that when it is grown as a houseplant, the Thanksgiving cactus should be grown in a potting mix that is humus-rich, airy, and well-draining with an acidic pH. One part peat moss, one part perlite, and one part orchid barkis a perfect mixture for the Thanksgiving cactus.

Water

A proper watering routine is one of the most important parts of keeping a Thanksgiving cactus happy. The soil should be kept consistently moist and should not be allowed to fully dry out. At the same time, a Thanksgiving cactus should never be waterlogged as it is sensitive to overwatering. Allow the top 1-2 inches of soil to dry out between watering and then water thoroughly until water drains out of the drainage hole in the bottom of the pot.

Temperature and Humidity

These tropical cacti thrive in warm, humid conditions. Ideally, keep the humidity around your Thanksgiving cactus above 50 percent, and temperatures between 60 to 65 degrees Fahrenheit (15 to 20 degrees Celsius). Average household temperatures are usually adequate for Thanksgiving cacti. 

Fertilizer

The Thanksgiving cactus should be fertilized regularly throughout the growing season to help promote blooming in the fall. Apply a balanced, diluted liquid fertilizer every two weeks during the spring, summer, and early fall. After the blooms have dropped, stop fertilizing the cactus until new growth begins in the spring. 

Pruning

Regular pruning helps to create a healthy, bushy plant and even helps the plant to produce more blooms in the fall. It is best to prune a Thanksgiving cactus during the spring once new growth has started emerging. Every cut that you make will encourage branching at that location, so choose your cuts wisely. Use a pair of sharp scissors or pruning shears and sterilize them before pruning. Make sure you save any cuttings that you take off of your plant for propagation!

Propagating the Thanksgiving Cactus

Thanksgiving cactus propagate prolifically from stem cuttings. Propagation is best done in the spring and summer when the cactus is in its active growing period. Avoid propagating during the winter once the Thanksgiving cactus has gone into dormancy. 

Propagating a Thanksgiving cactus is not only a great way to repurpose pruning cuttings, but can also help you fill out an existing plant, or create new plants! Here’s how you can propagate by stem cuttings in a few simple steps:

  1. Using a pair of sterilized pruning shears or scissors take several leaf/stem cuttings (about 2-3 leaf segments long each).
  2. Set the cuttings aside in a cool, dry location for 24 hours to allow the cut ends to callous over.
  3. Prepare the potting container by filling a small plastic pot with pre-moistened potting soil. 
  4. Plant the callused cuttings upright in the potting soil. Ensure that the cuttings are facing the same direction they were growing previously (i.e. don’t plant them "upside down").

How to Get the Thanksgiving Cactus to Bloom

True to its name, the Thanksgiving cactus blooms in the late fall around Thanksgiving every year. While some growers enjoy the Thanksgiving cactus for its foliage, most people grow these tropical cacti for their stunning and prolific blooms that can come in shades of red, pink, orange, yellow, and white. Blooms usually last from November to March.

When grown indoors, the Thanksgiving cactus might need a bit of help in order to bloom each year. Flowering results from shorter, colder days for several weeks. This can be achieved by placing your Thanksgiving cactus outdoors in the early fall to expose it to colder temperatures, or by manufacturing these conditions indoors. Thanksgiving cacti that are slightly pot-bound tend to bloom more easily, so wait to repot your cactus until the spring every year. Deadheading spent blooms will help to prolong the blooming period and encourage more blooms.

Common Problems With Thanksgiving Cacti

Overall, Thanksgiving cacti are relatively problem-free and easy to grow indoors. Common problems tend to arise from improper watering or issues with blooming.

No Blooms 

Growers often force Thanksgiving cacti to bloom just prior to selling them during the holiday season and it is not uncommon that the plants don’t bloom during their second year. You may have to wait patiently for a year or two before you see blooms again. Additionally, you will need to provide your Thanksgiving cactus with the proper conditions in order to induce blooming indoors, otherwise it is unlikely they will bloom naturally. 

Flower Buds Falling Off

Thanksgiving cacti are sensitive to changes in temperature and environment, and if they are exposed to drastic changes during flowering it is not uncommon for the plants to begin dropping buds and flowers. Ensure that you provide a stable, consistent environment during blooming to prevent this.

Leaves Turning Yellow

Yellowing leaves can be an indication of two different problems. If the leaves are turning yellow and mushy, overwatering is likely the issue. Ensure that you have proper drainage and the roots are not left sitting in water. Yellowing leaves can also be an indication of too much sunlight. Avoid placing your Thanksgiving cactus in direct sunlight.

FAQ
  • What Are the Differences Between the Thanksgiving Cactus, the Easter Cactus, and the Christmas Cactus?

    There are two main differences between these three popular holiday cacti. First, the shape of their leaves. While the Thanksgiving cactus has leaves with sharp-toothed edges, the Christmas cactus has leaves that are scalloped or teardrop-shaped, and the Easter cactus has leaves with rounded edges. 


    The second difference is when the cacti bloom, which is evidenced by their common names. The Thanksgiving cactus most commonly blooms in the late fall, while the Christmas cactus blooms in early to late winter, and the Easter cactus blooms in the early spring.


  • How Often Does a Thanksgiving Cactus Bloom?

    Under the right conditions, a Thanksgiving cactus will bloom once a year during the late fall.

  • How Long Do Thanksgiving Cacti Live?

    Holiday cacti are often passed down through generations because they have an incredibly long life. A Thanksgiving cactus can live up to 100 years with proper care.