Gardening: The Story of our Holiday cactus (part 1)

Breadcrumb Trail Links

“Few men have done more for botany and geography than Allan Cunningham.”

Publication date:

09.12.2021December 9, 20214 minutes read Join the conversation Christmas cactus Christmas cactus Included photo

Reviews and recommendations are unbiased and products are independently selected. Postmedia may earn an affiliate commission from purchases made through links on this site.

content of the article

Easy to care for, long-lived (40 years is not uncommon), and relatively inexpensive, holiday cacti are popular flowering houseplants. They come in a variety of colors including red, pink, purple, lavender, peach, orange, cream, white and two-tone, and their drooping branches make them ideal for hanging baskets. Depending on the flowering period, they are also called Thanksgiving cactus, Christmas cactus or Easter cactus.


This ad has not yet loaded, but your article continues below.

content of the article

But how did this Thanksgiving cactus make its way from Brazil to my kitchen window?

Enter Allan Cunningham

We have Allan Cunningham to thank for introducing the first holiday cactus to Kew Gardens and eventually to the world. He was born in Wimbledon, Surrey, England in 1791. At that time his father was head gardener at Wimbledon Park House. After his good education at the Reverend John Adams Academy, a private school in Putney, Cunningham first practiced as a lawyer. But in 1810, at the age of 19, he began working as a botanist under Sir Joseph Banks at Kew Gardens.

Allen Cunningham, plant researcher Allen Cunningham, plant researcher Photo from public domain /Included photo

On Banks’ recommendation, Cunningham accompanied James Bowie to Brazil between 1814 and 1816 as a botanical collector for Kew. On this expedition he found the first of these holiday cacti. He spent the rest of his life as a plant researcher and collector in Australia and New Zealand. He died of tuberculosis in Sydney in 1839 after spending 25 years collecting plants, almost exclusively in Australia. He was 48 years old. His obituary reads: “Few men have done more for botany and geography than Allan Cunningham, and his loss is sincerely regretted by all who were lucky enough to know him.”

Further development

The first of these cacti, discovered by Cunningham and brought to Europe in 1818, was Schlumbergera truncata, which blooms in October and November and became known as the “Thanksgiving Cactus”.

Schlumbergera russelliana, discovered in 1837 and introduced in 1839, blooms between February and April and has become the “Easter Cactus”.


This ad has not yet loaded, but your article continues below.

content of the article

Christmas cactus Christmas cactus Included photo

In 1852, William Buckley of Rollisson Nurseries in England crossed S. truncata with S. russelliana, resulting in the plant we call the “Christmas cactus” (S. × buckleyi). By the 1860s a significant number of cultivars were available in a range of colors. These were grown in ‘ovens’ (Victorian heated greenhouses) and in homes, and were prized for their autumn and winter flowers.

Beginning in the 1950s, breeders in Europe, North America, Australia, and New Zealand produced new plants by crossing species and cultivars of S. truncata, S. russelliana, and S. ×buckleyi. The result was a wide range of flower colors not previously available, including the first true yellow “Gold Charm”.

Today’s holiday cactus

In their homeland, the coastal mountains of Brazil, they grow in shady rain forests in piles of leaves in branch crevices or on rocks. About 12 inches (30 cm) tall and wide, they are densely branched, with pendulous stems composed of many thin, flattened segments, each about 1-1.5 inches (2.5-3.8 cm ) long x ¾-1 in. ( 2-2.5 cm) wide and with a distinct midrib. Since they lack real leaves, photosynthesis takes place in the green stem segments.

Christmas cactus Christmas cactus Photo by Jill Thomson /Included photo

The Thanksgiving cactus (Schlumbergera truncata) generally blooms for about seven weeks around American Thanksgiving in November. Their stem segments have two to four serrations or protrusions along the edges. The pollen-bearing anthers of the flowers are yellow.


This ad has not yet loaded, but your article continues below.

content of the article

Most modern Schlumbergera varieties are Thanksgiving cacti. Her buds are held more or less horizontally, and the top of the bud is shaped differently than the bottom.

The Christmas cactus (Schlumbergera x Buckleyi) flowers about a month later. The margins of the stem segments are more rounded and the anthers are pink to purple-brown. The teeth on the stem segments are more symmetrical, as are their drooping flowers.

Easter cactus (Schlumbergera gaertneri) blooms mainly in spring and sporadically throughout the year with pink or red flowers. The star-shaped flower buds form in February and bloom from March to May. Easter cacti have pointed teeth with fibrous hairs or bristles in the stem joints.

Next week: part two, holiday cacti care

Sara Williams is the author and co-author of many books including Creating the Prairie Xeriscape, Gardening Naturally with Hugh Skinner and with Bob Bors the recently published Growing Fruit in Northern Gardens. She continues to teach workshops on a variety of gardening topics on the prairies.

This column is provided with the kind permission of the Saskatchewan Perennial Society. Reach the Society by email at [email protected] or visit their website at You can find her on Facebook at

  1. Book gift ideas for garden lovers.

    The ultimate gift guide for the prairie gardener on your Christmas list

  2. Kristen Raney, local gardening blogger behind shifting roots, is pictured with her daughter Aulaire in her backyard.

    Saskatoon’s Gardening Blogger offers five tips for gardeners

  3. Winner of 2021 All-America selection. Clockwise from top left: Creme Brulee Shallot, Goldilocks Acorn Squash, Candela Pink Celosia, Pot-a-peno Jalapeno Pepper, Profusion Red Yellow Bicolor Zinnia, Shasta -Daisy

    Gardening: Winning Flower and Vegetable Choices for 2021

The news seems to be coming to us faster and faster. From COVID-19 updates to politics and crime and everything in between, it can be difficult to keep up. With that in mind, Saskatoon StarPhoenix has created an afternoon headlines newsletter to deliver to your inbox daily, ensuring you’re up to date with the day’s biggest news. Click here to login.

Share this article on your social network


This ad has not yet loaded, but your article continues below.

By clicking the subscribe button, you agree to receive the above newsletter from Postmedia Network Inc. You can unsubscribe at any time by clicking the unsubscribe link at the bottom of our emails. Postmedia Network Inc | 365 Bloor Street East, Toronto, Ontario, M4W 3L4 | 416-383-2300


Postmedia strives to maintain a vibrant but civilized forum for discussion and encourages all readers to share their views on our articles. Comments may take up to an hour to be moderated before they appear on the site. We ask that you keep your comments relevant and respectful. We’ve turned on email notifications – you’ll now receive an email when you get a reply to your comment, there’s an update on a comment thread you follow, or when a user you follow comments follows. For more information and details on how to customize your email settings, see our Community Guidelines.

Comments are closed.