Thanksgiving cactus vs Christmas cactus – what is the difference? Experts discuss

The holidays are unmistakably different – but how distinct are the plants? These are biggest contrasts to look out for

Christmas cactus
(Image credit: GettyImages)

It is the time of the year when our thoughts are focused around Thanksgiving – and then, inevitably, Christmas in the weeks that will follow. 

Despite some evident similarities (a Turkey-focused meal, for one), the two holidays have their own quirks that make it easy for us to differentiate the celebrations. However, when it comes to the eponymously named cactuses, the distinction is not always as clear. 

Questions surrounding the plant are already in abundance – and there is an ever-present desire to know how to grow a Christmas cactus – and how to make a Christmas cactus bloom, but perhaps the most prominent question of the moment is how to differentiate the festive plant from its Thanksgiving counterpart. 

This is how to tell the two cactuses apart – so you can celebrate the holiday with the right plant at the right time

Thanksgiving cactus vs Christmas cactus – what is the difference?

The most notable difference between a Christmas cactus and a Thanksgiving cactus is the shape of their leaves.

'A Thanksgiving cactus has sharp and claw-shaped projections at the leaf edges while a Christmas cactus has leaf-like projections that are shaped like tear-drops,' says Alex Tinsman from How To Houseplant.

Christmas cactus

(Image credit: GettyImages)

As the expert explains, the Thanksgiving cactus is described as being spiky, whereas the Christmas cactus is smoother. Thanksgiving cactuses also tend to be a deep red or purple color, whereas the Christmas alternative is often white, pink, or red in color.

However, its differences are not limited to its aesthetic. Lindsey Hyland from Urban Organic Yield explains that another key difference is the time in which each cactus blooms. 

'A Thanksgiving cactus is a type of cactus that blooms in late fall, typically in November,' she says – fittingly in time for Thanksgiving. Meanwhile, a Christmas cactus blooms in late winter or early spring – typically in December.  

Christmas cactus

(Image credit: GettyImages)

Should I deadhead a Thanksgiving cactus?

Yes, you propagate a Thanksgiving cactus by taking cuttings, as they do not produce seeds. However, knowing how to propagate Christmas cactus is a slightly different process. Unlike the Thanksgiving plant, the Christmas cactus should be deadheaded after blooming to encourage new flowering,' according to Lindsey. Knowing when to water a Christmas cactus is also vital in preserving your plant's health and ensuring it's healthy enough to survive the season and beyond. 

You are likely to see buds on your Thanksgiving cactus appear in late fall for the holiday. However, they typically bloom at the same time as the Christmas cactus.

For maximum longevity, you can read up on how to repot a Christmas cactus to ensure you get the most from your plant and enjoy its festive colors year after year.  

Christmas cactus

(Image credit: GettyImages)

Why is it called a Thanksgiving cactus?

According to expert Lindsey Hyland, the 'Thanksgiving cactus' was originally seen as a type of Christmas cactus. 

'They are both from the genus Schlumbergera, and they are closely related. The main difference is that the Thanksgiving cactus blooms in late fall (around November), while the Christmas cactus blooms in winter (usually around December),' she says. 

Another name for a Christmas cactus is Schlumbergera buckleyi – a cactus native to Brazil. Meanwhile, the 'Thanksgiving cactus' is a name given to several different species of cactus, all of which are native to North America.

Megan Slack
Head of Celebrity Style News

Megan is the Head of Celebrity Style News at Homes & Gardens. She first joined Future Plc as a News Writer across their interiors titles, including Livingetc and Real Homes, before becoming H&G's News Editor in April 2022. She now leads the Celebrity/ News team. Before joining Future, Megan worked as a News Explainer at The Telegraph, following her MA in International Journalism at the University of Leeds. During her BA in English Literature and Creative Writing, she gained writing experience in the US while studying in New York. Megan also focused on travel writing during her time living in Paris, where she produced content for a French travel site. She currently lives in London with her antique typewriter and an expansive collection of houseplants.