For Thanksgiving cactus, priority is water

November 14, 2018

Nothing could be more American than Thanksgiving. Well, almost. However, as the young United States was finding its way, presidents originally had to declare Thanksgiving a holiday each year. President Thomas Jefferson refused to declare Thanksgiving as a holiday, since he believed in the separation of church and state, and a federal holiday of Thanksgiving violates the First Amendment.

But thanks we gave, and Thanksgiving is here to stay, and along with it come gift plants. Keeping gift plants alive and healthy can be a challenge – unless that gift plant is the colorful and easy-to-care-for Thanksgiving Cactus (Schlumbergera truncata).

These colorful houseplants have fuchsia-like flowers in shades of white, red, pink and yellow. Christmas cactus is similar but has smoother-edged leaves. Best of all, they will keep blooming for up to four months. Since they often come with colorful foil wrap that can hold in water, first remove the foil to promote good drainage. Set them where they get bright sunlight, such as a south-facing window.

This plant is not a true cactus, but an epiphyte - like orchids - a plant that hangs on other plants but doesn't get nutrients from the host plant the way a parasite does. The single most important thing about caring for Thanksgiving cactus is water. As natives to the humid, rainy tropics, Thanksgiving cactus should never be allowed to dry out. Water regularly, but not enough that you swamp the poor things, as soggy soil can cause them to rot. Just let the top inch or two of soil dry out before you water again.

Feed your Thanksgiving cactus every two weeks with a liquid fertilizer at half strength right up until the blossoms have dropped. Wait until spring before fertilizing again. If you want to get a bushier plant, you can prune it in the spring. Since the flowers grow from the ends of the stems, the more stems you have, the more flowers you get.

When your Thanksgiving cactus is done blooming, cut off any dead flowers and fertilize it with a liquid houseplant fertilizer applied at half strength every few weeks. Getting your Thanksgiving cactus to bloom again requires cool temperatures and shorter daylight hours. So beginning in late summer to early fall, make sure your plant stays cool, with no hot, direct sunlight.

In September, stop fertilizing and decrease watering to just once weekly. Keep your plant on a cool, dimly lit windowsill. Soon, the leaf tips will begin to show color. If your Thanksgiving cactus doesn't set buds, move it to a dark closet for 12 hours every night for three weeks. Once you see flower buds, don't move the plant around or the buds might drop off.

You can easily propagate Thanksgiving cactus by breaking off a stem with at least three segments. Let the stem dry out and callus over for about a week before you insert it into a pot of cactus-type potting soil or even just damp sand.

Keep the newly planted cutting in bright, indirect light and in as little as three weeks, you will have a rooted new plant, perfect to give for Thanksgiving – even without a presidential proclamation.


  • Paul Barbano writes about gardening from his home in Rehoboth Beach. Contact him by writing to P. O. Box 213, Lewes, DE 19958.