December 14, 2010


I've been obsessed lately with Christmas Cactus, or what florists now call Zygocactus ( a name introduced a few years ago by the trade to help market these plants which are still properly known in botanical Latin as Schlumbergera. The genus Schlumbergera has been cultivated by man for over 200 years, with the first species being discovered in 1809 and introduced to England. By the turn of the Century, at least four species of Schlumbergera were introduced, and a few popular interspecific hybrids took over the scene. You may have noticed that some Schlumbergera have lobster claw shaped foliage segments, or you may remember old fashioned forms with rounded leaves. I too wondered why these plants are different, and only recently discovered that Christmas Cactus have an interesting back story, and different forms evolved from different crosses between different species.

A modern hybrid form of Schlumbergera 


Every plant has a story, and we can  thank, Charles Lemaire (1801-1871) who in 1858 named this genus after Frédéric Schlumberger (1823-1893). Schlumberger was French collector of  cacti and succulents. In the late 1800's the most common Schlumbergera was one of these hybrids, S. x buckleyi, ( named for another plant explorer Buckley in 1852). A cross between two species, S. truncata and S. russelliana, this is still found today as a hand-me-down houseplant, but never found in retail situations. I have a close relationship with this form since this is the Christmas Cactus my mother grew in large Roseville containers on our window seat in the dining room in the 1960's, and I still have the offspring of these large, woody specimen plants that bloomed every Christmas. This is the variety with rounded leaves that your mother or great grandmother most likely grew.

There are six distinct species within the genus of Schlumbergera,  all are native to Brazil and in their native environment, they sometimes experience near freezing conditions. In the wild, they grow epiphytically on tree trunks or branches, which provides a hint on the sort of growing conditions they like - moist, jungles that are cool, rainy but with roots in mediums that are fast draining. Growers must remember that these are not cacti at all.

The six species known are:

Schlumbergera russelliana
Schlumbergera truncata
Schlimbergera orssichiana
Schlumbergera kautskyi
Schlumbergera opuntioides
Schlumbergera microssphaerica

If you are wondering where the Thanksgiving Cactus or Easter Cactus fit in, they are not classified as Schlumbergera, but are infact different genus all together.

Today there are many hybrids, with new ones being introduced every year ( and surprisingly, old ones being retired by growers every year, too). So if you once remembered a yellow fringed form from ten years ago, it may no longer be available today. Plant breeders started hybridizing Schlumbergera agressively in the late 1970s, and by the 1980’s many named and registered forms were introduced. Most Christmas Cactus are created and marketed as series by plant breeders, and some are well known with collectors. Just go to eBay or Google Zygocactus and you will see the vast number of forms that are named.

In the 1990’s, a number of named series were introduced quickly being distributed under series names like the Thor series from Denmark, and  Dancer series from the Netherlands. Yellow forms are known to show less pink in their petals if kept at warmer temperatures when in bud, and newer named yellow forms are more pure in color.  Also note that many of the large commercial growers change their series names every year, so keeping track of registered names is challenging.

Like many plants where pink or red becomes the default form, a yellow variety becomes all the rage, and so it is with Christmas Cactus. Older yellow forms introduced in the 1980's were bronzy in tone, but every year, newer introductions become more pure. Japanese plant breeders have introduced some  better yellow forms recently, such as ‘Chiba Lara’ and Sunny Bright’. But these are difficult to find in the marketplace. The hottest forms are Chimera's or mutations, most notably one called 'Enigma' which has a tassel of stamens rather than petals. I've been trying to obtain some cuttings on eBay auctions, but I chicken out when the bids rise beyond $100. There are some things that I just feel are not worth it!

A quick shot in poor light, of one of my seed raised plants in the plant window.

Christmas Cactus are easy to grow, and they make long-lived house plants, but some people find them challenging to bloom on schedule.
If you are having trouble getting Schlumbergera to bud and bloom, the trick is simple to allow your plants to experience the shortening day length of autumn and winter.  In a greenhouse, it’s much easier to provide this seasonal shift in light quality, because there is less of a chance that a table lamp or a streetlight may throw off their photoperiod. It helps even more if the night time temperatures drops at the same time, with a ten degree shift enhancing any bud formation. Our grandparents would follow a simple routine here in New England, moving their Christmas Cactus into a cellar window for the month of October. Essentially, for plants to form buds, they plants should go dry for much of autumn and they must receive at least 12 hours of darkness every day.


  1. Anonymous10:59 AM

    What a wonderful article! Full of good info and photos. I had sort of "forgotten" about this interesting plant, and the article makes me want to go and get one. Thanks Matt!

  2. Anonymous9:37 AM

    HI Matt
    Many years (25) back I won a Schlumbergera x buckleyi old fashion rounded teeth Christmas cactus, but this one instead of being majenta in color was a beautiful orange. At first i thought the soil chemistry in the pot was old and depleted and causing the orange color however I really believe that it was a true orange variety. Have you ever seen this one? Sadly I lost the plant a few years back and can't locate it again (even on ebay) :( thanks for a great article ! Walt

    1. Anonymous1:02 AM

      My mum has the orange and yes I too I sought it, it cannot be found . The only person I know of or heard of having this original orange is my mum. I have told her to take very good care of it.

  3. Anonymous8:11 PM

    Hi! There really is an old fashion "orange" buckleyi. I love schlums, you have some very pretty ones!

  4. Thank you so very much for posting this! I don't think I would have ever found out which variety of plant I have otherwise! Turns out that I have a Schlumbergera x buckleyi! Mine has the distinctive little "hairs" at the end of some of the leaves. A coworker had left it in the kitchen, almost dead, and I took pity and watered it. It perked right up and it quite large now.

    I was trying to figure out which variety I have because I've noticed that a good deal of the newest (end) leaves are x-shaped at the tip (e.g. the leaf consists of two planes intersecting each other at a 90 degree angle so they form an x). Are these perhaps future buds? My plant flowered last year, but I don't recall it making such weird-shaped leaves beforehand. Or perhaps this is just a mutation?

    I found this link as well (http://davesgarden.com/guides/pf/showimage/13304/) which made me feel better because my plant is also brown and crusty closer towards its roots. At first, I thought this was a sign of disease or damage from its rough beginning, but the plant is bright green and keeps growing. Do you know if this is a common characteristic of this variety of cactus?

    Again, thank you so very much for the detailed explanations, history, and pictures of these plants!

  5. Anonymous10:51 AM

    Wonderful article for those of us that truly enjoy the real old fashioned Christmas cactus. As a home builder and home remodeler I am fortunate to be in many houses each and every day. Making friends and trading plants is a hobby I enjoy and being single I have no wife to stop or hinder my ever expanding collections of the old fashioned christmas cactus. Now hundreds are in every window on all four corners of the house. I would encourage all to try the older varieties and to keep them going. By placing them in a cool naturally lighted basement every two weeks from early Sept until mid Nov each year the collector will have blossoms from early/mid Nov until mid Feb each and every year here on the frozen tundra of Wisc. So thanks for your warming article. Michael J.


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