Zygocactus (Schlumbergera truncata) may be sold as a Holiday Cactus, Thanksgiving Cactus, or even a Christmas Cactus leading to some confusion over whether a Thanksgiving Cactus and a Christmas Cactus are the same. While they do look similar and belong to the same family, a Thanksgiving cactus blooms 4 to 6 weeks earlier than a Christmas Cactus and has a toothed margin on its fleshy leaves. The Christmas Cactus has smooth margins on the leaves and blooms in December.
These similar plants look the same at first glance and produce flower buds and blooms with nearly identical shapes and colors. To further complicate the confusion, the Thanksgiving Cactus has experienced a name change from Zygocactus truncata to Schlumbergera truncata in 1953, leading many to wonder if the Zygocactus is really a Thanksgiving Cactus or some special breed of its own.
Zygocactus are actually tropical plants called succulents. They produce fleshy green, segmented stems devoid of leaves. The arching stems sport buds and flowers from the tip creating a dazzling display of color in late fall.
Is a Zygocactus a Christmas Cactus?
Although some producers market the Zygocactus as a Christmas Cactus it is actually a Thanksgiving Cactus. A true Christmas Cactus (Schlumbergera x buckleyi) blooms a few weeks later than a Thanksgiving Cactus and has smooth edges to its fleshy stems, while the Thanksgiving Cactus has toothed edges on the stems.
Zygocactus flowers bloom in October or November, but it often keeps on blooming until well after Christmas leading some to refer to it as a Christmas cactus.
Where to Buy a Zygocactus
Zygocactus can be found in plant outlets, at florist shops, in grocery stores, and anywhere that plants are sold during the holidays. They may be labeled as Holiday Cactus, Christmas Cactus, Thanksgiving Cactus, or simply as Zygocactus.
Zygocactus is a popular holiday plant ideal as a hostess gift at holiday parties. Like Christmas cacti, they brighten the holidays and add cheer to any room. They will also live for years as a houseplant when given proper care.
How to Care for Zygocactus
Despite its name, the Zygocactus isn't really a true cactus, at least not the kind that lives in a desert. It is an epiphytic cactus native to the tropical forests in South America. This plant lives in South American jungles where the soil is moist. Even though it is succulent it is not drought tolerant.
A Zygocactus needs bright, indirect light from a sunny window, but does not do well in direct sunlight. Grow your Thanksgiving cactus in a sunny eastern window or several feet from a western or southern window.
Thanksgiving cactus can be grown closer to the window if you hang a sheer curtain in the window to filter the light. Trees or other light-filtering objects outside the window will also make it possible to grow your Zygocactus directly on a sunny windowsill.
Don't be misled by the name cactus and think your holiday cactus needs bone dry soil. This simply isn't the case.
Zygocactus prefers evenly moist soil that does not dry out completely. It is best to water them thoroughly so that water runs freely through the bottom of the pot and then let them dry out before watering them again.
Check the soil moisture before watering your cactus. If the top 1 to 2 inches of the soil feels dry to the touch, it is time to water your Thanksgiving cactus.
Soil and Fertilizer Needs
Like Christmas Cacti and other holiday cactus, the Thanksgiving Cactus needs well-draining soil that stays slightly moist between waterings. A high-quality cactus mix is an excellent choice as potting soil for your Zygocactus. But you don't need to purchase a premade mix. You can make your own soil mix.
Mix one part peat moss, one part perlite, and one part compost together to make your own potting mix for your Thanksgiving Cactus. This formula provides plenty of aeration, drains well, and holds just the right amount of water to give your plant the moisture it needs. This mix also allows you to use your own nutrient-rich dirt from a kitchen composter like Lomi so you will always know it will provide your plants with fresh nutrients, too.
Your Zygocactus plant needs fertilizer to keep it healthy and to replace nutrients in the soil. A diluted solution of liquid houseplant fertilizer is ideal. Mix it to 1/4 strength and apply it to your Zygocactus every week to 10 days during the spring, summer, and fall when the plant is actively growing.
Withhold fertilizer in the late winter when the plant finishes blooming, as it needs a rest period after a period of active growth and blooming.
Temperature & Humidity
Zygocactus adapts well to indoor temperatures and humidity levels. While it prefers humidity levels above 50 percent it will tolerate a lower humidity level. Likewise, Zygocactus thrives in household temperatures between 60 and 65 degrees but will tolerate temperatures a bit higher. If you keep your thermostat higher than 65 degrees, consider placing your Thanksgiving cactus in a cool room.
However, they are sensitive to either hot or cold drafts and should not be grown near heat sources like furnace ducts or vents. In the summer when the AC is on, watch out for cold drafts from these vents too.
Holiday Cacti are long-living plants that are often passed down from one generation to the next. In fact, they reportedly have been known to live for over 100 years when given the proper care. That means you will likely need to repot your Zygocactus more than a few times in your lifetime.
These plants like to be snug in the pot and don't mind being slightly root bound, but they do need room for their roots to grow. Repot your holiday cactus every 3 years to keep them healthy and happy. The best time to repot them is in the spring or early summer when they are actively growing.
How to Repot a Zygocactus
- Water your Thanksgiving Cactus the day before repotting it. This gives it the moisture it needs to stay well-hydrated during repotting. It also loosens the soil and makes repotting easier.
- Prepare a new plant pot by filling it halfway with a high-quality cactus mix.
- Remove the cactus from its existing pot. If it resists your efforts, squeeze the pot or run a flat object, like a knife, around the rim of the pot between the soil and the side of the pot.
- Shake excess soil from the roots and gently loosen the roots with your fingers.
- Place the plant into the new pot, so the roots are spread out over the soil.
- Fill in around the roots with fresh cactus soil, positioning the plant so the crown (the point where the roots meet the stem) rests at the soil level.
- Firm down the soil with your hands so that it holds the plant securely in position. Firming the soil also removes air pockets making it easier for your plant to get the water and nutrients it needs.
- Water the plant thoroughly and place it in its original location.
- Let the soil dry until the top 1 to 2 inches feel dry to the touch before watering it again.
How to Get Your Zygocactus to Bloom
Zygocactus bloom in the fall in their natural environment, but they may need a little help from you to bloom inside the home.
- Move your cactus to a room with cooler temperatures in September. Temperatures between 50 and 60 degrees are ideal to force the plant to fully bloom, says the University of Vermont Extension.
- Give the plant total darkness for 12 hours a night at this time. If the room receives outside light from streetlights or ambient light from the TV or computers, cover the cactus with a box or other lightproof material for the night and remove it during the day.
- Give the plant liquid household fertilizer when the first buds begin to appear. Buds form on the tips of the fleshy stems and look like tiny dots of color.
- Move the plant to the desired location for winter blooming. But beware! High temperatures, hot or cold drafts, and too little light will cause the buds to drop before they are in full bloom. Avoid locations near heating vents (or other heat sources) or drafty windows and choose a sunny location to keep these beauties in bloom.
Zygocactus is easy to propagate from stem cuttings.
- Take stem cuttings that contain at least 2 to 3 sections from the growing tips of your cactus. Small or immature new growth that is not fully formed should be avoided.
- Allow the cuttings to rest in a cool area for 24 hours. This helps a callous form and makes rooting quicker and easier.
- Insert the tip of the cutting in rooting powder. Shake off any excess powder.
- Insert the cut end of the cutting into moist peat moss or damp coarse sand.
- Watch for new growth to appear in a few weeks. New growth is a sign that your cactus cutting has formed roots. You can also check for roots by gently tugging on the cutting. If it resists your efforts, roots have formed.
- Pot the rooted cuttings in cactus potting mix and place them in a sunny location where they receive bright indirect light.
Zygocactus is a delightful plant that adds a splash of color to the home in the fall and winter. Whether they are labeled as Christmas Cactus, Thanksgiving Cactus, or simply as Holiday Cactus really doesn't matter. These impressive plants put a dramatic show with their tubular-shaped flowers that range in color from white and pink to brilliant shades of red, salmon, and orange.