Thanksgiving Cactus Is the Flowering Houseplant Perfect for Beginners

published Oct 27, 2023
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When you think of a cactus, you probably think of the stereotypical tall, prickly, multi-armed plant of the Saguaro desert. But cacti encompass a large variety of plants — all of which are characterized by thick, fleshy exteriors that hold onto water (making these plants ideally suited to regions with limited water).

One variety you’ve likely seen in nurseries and florist shops is the Thanksgiving cactus, an old-school standby that’s worth a second look. You might have mistakenly called it a Christmas cactus — I did when I inherited mine from my grandmother, until I realized my mistake. But the Thanksgiving cactus is its own plant with its own needs. Here’s what you should know about planting and caring for your own Thanksgiving cactus. 

Credit: Nadya So / Shutterstock

What is the Thanksgiving cactus?

“One of the key differences between Schlumbergera truncata [Thanksgiving cactus] and other cacti is the shape of their stems,” says Julia Omelchenko, the resident botany expert for the Plantum app. The succulent stems, often called leaves, are composed of flat, glossy segments with toothed edges.

The Thanksgiving cactus, Christmas cactus, and Easter cactus all belong to the same scientific genus, although each species has slight distinctions.

The Thanksgiving cactus comes from the jungles of Brazil. Generally, these plants produce soft, tubular blooms in late fall and early winter, which coincides with Thanksgiving — hence the common name of this particular species.

What should you look for when buying a Thanksgiving cactus?

Although plant aficionados can bring ailing plants back to life, there may be better places for a novice to start. Omelchenko says you can easily find Thanksgiving cacti at plant nurseries, online stores, and garden centers in various forms and maturity stages, ranging from tiny cuttings that have barely taken root to well-grounded specimens. 

To select a healthy plant, look for one that is established with bright green stems that don’t look sickly. “Avoid plants with wrinkly, dry, droopy, or rotten areas,” adds Omelchenko. Flowers bloom in red, pink, yellow, white, purple, and orange tones, so when you need to select a color, choose one based on your preferences.

Credit: Nadya So / Shutterstock

What kind of soil does a Thanksgiving cactus need?

As Brock Ingham, the owner of Bigger Garden, expresses, the name cactus can be misleading. Unlike most cacti, which require rocky or sandy soil, the Thanksgiving cactus prefers more traditional potting soil.

“Originating from the jungles of Brazil, these beauties naturally hang out on tree branches, soaking up all the goodness from decaying organic matter,” says Ingham. Recreating this environment for your plant will provide essential nutrients. 

To encourage healthy roots, Omelchenko recommends loose and airy soil. “The perfect option would be to prepare a potting mix consisting of equal parts peat, leaf mold and loam-based compost, coarse sand, and perlite,” she says.

Good drainage is also essential, so pick a pot with drainage holes and add a layer of rocks or terracotta beads before coating the bottom with soil to discourage root rot and waterlogging

Credit: TSViPhoto / Shutterstock

What kind of light does a Thanksgiving cactus need?

Direct sun exposure is incredibly harsh and can cause the segments to scorch, wilt, and change color. However, mimicking natural conditions will set your Thanksgiving cactus up for success.

“In its natural habitat, this plant receives plenty of sunlight filtered by thick tree crowns in rainforests,” says Omelchenko. An east- or west-facing window with bright, diffused light will provide a place that feels like home. 

What kind of watering does the Thanksgiving cactus need?

One of the trickiest parts of plant parenthood is watering. Fortunately, the Thanksgiving cactus has its requirements, yet it’s not terribly picky.

“Maintain consistent moisture in the soil, allowing the top inch to dry out between waterings,” advises Denise Snug from Watex Green Living. She also recommends not overwatering or letting the roots sit in water, as overhydration can lead to root rot and an unhealthy plant. 

Additionally, Omelchenko suggests altering the amount of water to coordinate with the blooming season. “Once the cactus stops flowering, reduce watering a little,” she says. 

Resume your regular watering schedule when the first new shoots appear, and if you really want to treat your plant, use warm, soft, filtered water when giving it a drink.

Credit: Bozhena Melnyk / Shutterstock

What kind of fertilizer does the Thanksgiving cactus need?

According to Snug, supplementing with a nutrient-dense fertilizer designed for indoor plants will encourage growth and help the cactus — especially during the growing and blooming season, which occurs in the spring and summer.

“Fertilize every 4 to 6 weeks with a balanced, diluted houseplant fertilizer during the growing season,” she advises. Following the dilution instructions on the fertilizer is critical, as a too-concentrated solution can chemically burn delicate roots.

How should you prune your Thanksgiving cactus? 

Pruning your Thanksgiving cactus will help maintain its health and encourage new shoots. Plus, you can propagate the cuttings to cultivate new plants. Omelchenko recommends doing this in spring when new growth begins emerging.

“Pruning will help shape the plant and make its stems grow more densely, as every cut you make will lead to branching from that spot,” she adds. Use sharp scissors or pruning shears for this procedure, and disinfect the chosen tool with rubbing alcohol before cutting to avoid contaminating your plant.

Where should you keep your Thanksgiving cactus?

Although a primary consideration when selecting a spot, light shouldn’t be your only concern, as fluctuating temperatures, drafts, and dry conditions can take a toll on a healthy plant.

Dry conditions and drastic temperature changes — like if your cactus is located too close to a radiator — can be a recipe for disaster and negatively impact a plant that would otherwise thrive.

Make sure that your Thanksgiving cactus is located in a spot that’s not too close to radiators (to minimize dryness) or exterior doors (to minimize exposure to cold air).