Gardening Articles: Health :: Houseplants

The Holiday Cactus

by Jack Ruttle


To understand the Christmas cactus, think "jungle," not "desert." These spineless, succulent cacti (Schlumbergera, formerly Zygocactus) all come from the Brazilian rainforest. Come the end of the year, around holiday time, nearly every branch tip will end in one or two blossoms in a wide range of translucent colors, depending on the variety: white and yellow through orange, pink, red, and magenta. Individual flowers last about a week, and one plant's display can go on for three weeks.

Hybridizers have done much mixing and matching in the last few decades, but most of the kinds available are hybrids of just two: S. russelliana, with gently lobed leaves, which blooms around Christmas, and S. truncata, which has leaves with fleshy spikes on the sides (hence the name crab-cactus) and blooms closer to Thanksgiving.

Sometimes you'll see Christmas cacti referred to as Buckleyi hybrids, or you may see the species S. bridgesii. Both are outdated names for hybrids with predominantly S. russelliana traits. The newly discovered "princess" or "queen" cactus is S. orssichiana. It can bloom two or three times a year and is still something of a rarity, though commercially available.

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