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Thanksgiving and Christmas cactuses – what you need to know

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Photo courtesy of Karan Davis Cutler.

(Read caption) Although their flowers are similar, Christmas cactuses have stems with rounded edges, not the hook-edged stems characteristic of Thanksgiving cactuses.

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The candy canes and tinsel appeared in my supermarket the day after Halloween, so it’s not shocking that the store also is stocked with Christmas cactuses.

A close inspection reveals not just Christmas but Thanksgiving cactuses. Both members of this seasonal gang are epiphytes, high-elevation jungle species that get most of their nutrients from the air and rain and live in trees like Tarzan. Cactuses yes, desert no.

Thanksgiving and Christmas cactuses, members of the genus, have glorious backswept petaled flowers that appear between October and February, then again in spring.

They’re easy to grow, pretty much no-kill houseplants that are likely to outlive their cultivators. My neighbors the Laphams are tending a plant that came from his grandmother, and Jody Lapham is older than I am, which is old enough to have grandchildren.

Whether you buy Thanksgiving or Christmas cactus isn’t important, but if you’re a stickler for detail, look closely at the plant’s flattened stems. If it has sharp, hooklike edges, it’s a Thanksgiving cactus; if the edges are rounded, like my neighbor Jody Lapham’s is, it’s a Christmas cactus.

Both flower in May in their native Brazil — , or May flower — nowhere near the holidays for which we’ve named them. Funny things, common names.

Epiphytic cactuses want moderate temperatures, soil that drains quickly, occasional doses of diluted fertilizer, filtered light, and water only once the soil is dry to the touch. They also need decent air circulation and like to be slightly pot bound.

Like children, both species benefit from spending the summer outdoors. Bud set depends on temperature and light — the lack of light, actually — so I bring my plants indoors in late fall once the falling mercury and shorter days have produced buds.

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