Growing Easter Cactus - March 31, 2021
Jeff Schalau, Agent, Agriculture & Natural Resources
University of Arizona Cooperative Extension, Yavapai County
Easter cacti (Schlumbergera gaertneri also called Hatiora gaertneri) are native to Brazil and hybrids are available in a wide variety of colors including red, rose, purple, lavender, peach, orange, cream, and white. In the wild, these species grow as epiphytes (like orchids and bromeliads) on the exterior of tree branches and rock surfaces in shady, humid rain forests. For most people in the U.S., these plants are grown indoors.
In natural environments, Easter cacti get nutrients and water from rain, air, etc. Like most cacti, these plants lack true leaves and conduct photosynthesis in their green stems which are similar, but less spiny than pads of prickly pear or joints of cholla. Christmas cactus (Schlumbergera x bridgesii) and Thanksgiving cactus (Schlumbergera truncata) are close relatives of Easter cacti but bloom in fall and winter.
Easter cacti are spring blooming, come from higher elevations, and are considered a little more difficult to grow than the fall blooming species. Easter cacti flowers are a deeper scarlet and have stamens that are arranged uniformly.
Thanksgiving cacti are most easily recognized by pointed/toothed stem segments; flowers held more or less horizontally with the upper and lower sides are not symmetrical (zygomorphic); and pollen which is yellow.
Christmas cacti usually have stem segments with rounded, more symmetrical teeth (like Easter cacti), more or less symmetrical flowers which hang downward, and pollen which is pink. They generally flower later than Thanksgiving cacti. If you are not sure which species/group you might have, look at the resources included below.
These “holiday” cacti are quite easy to care for once you understand the basics. When not in flower, grow the plant as you would any houseplant. They can be kept in a shady location outdoors during the summer but must be moved indoors before temperatures drop below 45 degrees F. Soil should be well drained. Fertilize monthly between April and October with a complete houseplant fertilizer. Prune plants in June to encourage branching which encourages more flowers. Just remove a few sections of each stem with your fingers or a sharp knife. These can be rooted to create additional plants.
Some references indicate these cacti bloom more profusely when kept somewhat pot bound. Repotting is necessary only about once every three years and is best done in the spring after the bloom period. The potting medium must be well-drained with good aeration, as these epiphytic cacti do not grow well in heavy, wet potting mixes. A good mix may contain 60-80% potting soil with 40-20% added perlite.
Easter cactus is considered a long day plant and sets buds in late winter or early spring when days become longer. Thanksgiving and Christmas cacti bloom when nights are at least 15 hours long. All of these species flower more if exposed to prolonged cool temperatures between 50-55°F. Fewer flowers will form at night temperatures above 70 degrees. When plants begin to flower, they should be kept in bright, indirect light. Too much light can cause the flower color to fade or the heat my cause the flower buds to drop. Day temperatures of 70°F and evening temperatures of 60-65°F are considered ideal.
Easter, Thanksgiving, and Christmas cacti are easy to propagate by cuttings. During the June pruning, save stems with 3 to 5 segments and allow the cut ends of the sections to callus by placing them in a dry, shady location for a few days. Using the mix described above, place three cuttings at approximately one inch deep into the potting soil of a 4-inch container. Water the soil well, and cover the plants and rooting container with a clear plastic bag (thin grocery produce bags work well). Secure the bag with a rubber band around the container. The plastic bag will act as a miniature greenhouse to keep the relative humidity at 100% to enhance rooting. Place the container in bright, indirect light until roots have formed in three to eight weeks. Then, remove the plastic bag and share them with friends and family. You will enjoy growing these colorful, resilient houseplants!
You can follow the Backyard Gardener on Twitter – use the link on the BYG website. If you have other gardening questions, email the Master Gardener Help Desk in Prescott (firstname.lastname@example.org) or Camp Verde (email@example.com) and be sure to include your name, location, and phone number. Find past Backyard Gardener columns or provide feedback at the Backyard Gardener web site: https://cals.arizona.edu/yavapai/anr/hort/byg/.
Easter cactus (Schlumbergera truncata) blooms in spring as days get longer but nights are still cool (Photo by Jeff Schalau, University of Arizona).
Thanksgiving cactus (Schlumbergera truncata) blooms in fall when days are becoming shorter (Kor!An (?????? ???????) CC BY-SA 3.0).
Christmas cactus (Schlumbergera bridgesii) also blooms in fall when days are becoming shorter (University of Missouri Extension).
Easter Cactus Brings Spring Color Indoors, University of Minnesota Extension
Holiday Cacti, University of Minnesota Extension
Is it a Thanksgiving, Christmas or Easter Cactus?, Iowa State University Extension and Outreach
Schlumbergera gaertneri, North Carolina State University Extension
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Last Updated: March 25, 2021
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