Holiday cacti are traditional, but other varieties are even more spectacular

Did I really see a rack of poinsettias in an Outside supermarket last week? I did. How could that be? We are still eating leftover Halloween candy! Thanksgiving is the next holiday and cacti (Schlumbergera truncata), pumpkins and colored corn come before the poinsettias, please.

I guess I just needed to get back to Alaska, where Thanksgiving cacti Schlumbergera truncata and not poinsettias are the pre-Thanksgiving game. Which is a good thing, since writing about Thanksgiving cactus is alas, one of those garden-writing rules I occasionally let you in on. This rule is why every single internet news feed will have an article about this traditional T-day plant. They will all include the same information, so I don’t know why I have to do this.

I mean, first of all, these articles all talk about how to tell the difference between a Thanksgiving cactus and a Christmas one (Schumbergera bridgeii). Some may even include Easter cacti (Rhipsalidopsis gaertnerii) in the comparison. Thanksgiving cacti have sharp, jagged-edged stems — these are not leaves. In fact, they used to be called crab cacti before becoming associated with the holiday. Christmas cacti have smooth-edged stems and the Easter plants have little tufts of hair-like structures at stem tips.

This seems like a lot of stuff to remember. They set buds a few weeks before their namesake holidays, so that would be an easier way to ID them. Ah, but this identification trick only works if you have old plants. Modern breeding efforts have blurred the lines between the Thanksgiving and Christmas plants. (And, these plants can bloom a second time if they are returned to another short day session.) If you got a cutting from Mom’s plant, you are probably dealing with the old-fashioned kind. Anything purchased in the last 10 years could be a hybrid. Either way, the length of daylight is what triggers flowering. And, since they originally come from the mountain forests of Brazil, cooler temperatures help to set the trigger.

OK, these are plants that bloom automatically based on day length. The newsfeed articles should note that they are really, really easy to grow. They like a cool environment and natural light. If you don’t water them, the stems shrivel, and if you water too much the plant wilts, so light watering when the soil dries and a dry spell for a few weeks after flowering is the rule.

And, finally, all those Outside news blog articles will point out these holiday plants are epiphyllums, a type of cacti. What they won’t mention is that there are other epiphyllums that produce flowers so much bigger and so much more spectacular than the holiday cacti, but are just as easy to grow. They may not bloom in coincidence with a holiday, but these are often referred to as “orchid cacti” because the flowers are so fantastic. Best of all, the only thing you have to remember is that they set buds based on day length. This means all you have to do is keep them where they only get natural light.

Orchid cacti can often be purchased locally, as can holiday cacti). More can be found on the internet, however, and you can get an idea of why I am suggesting you try some; the flowers are so fantastic. Orchid cacti are sold as small plants, but most often as stem segments that will root and quickly develop into a flowering plant. Again, these may not be as familiar to you as the Thanksgiving, Christmas or Easter varieties, but trust me, when one blooms, it will seem every bit like a holiday.

Jeff’s Alaska garden calendar for the week:

Alaska Botanical Garden lights: They will be back at the end of the month! Stroll the garden and see a beautiful holiday light display. You need tickets. Check Saturday, Nov. 27 is members night, and the display opens to ticketed members of the general public on the Nov. 28.

Grow lights: You go to a nursery to buy plants, why not go to a grow store or a lighting store to get your lights? This way you can explain to someone who can help what you are growing, how many plants you maintain and any special special needs you have. The folks who work at these stores are experts at matching you up. Do it right.

Snow, shrubs and trees: In addition to getting those snow shovels out, consider getting a really long pole or two by four to knock heavy snow off tree limbs and shrubs.

Jeff Lowenfels

Jeff Lowenfels has written a weekly gardening column for the ADN for more than 45 years. His columns won the 2020 gold medal at the Garden Communicators International conference. He's authored several books on organic gardening; his latest is "DIY Autoflowering Cannabis: A New Way To Grow." Reach him at