Schlumbergera truncata



Schlumbergera truncata

(Haw.) Moran 1953

pronounced: shlum-BER-ger-uh trun-KAH-tuh

(Cactaceae — the cactus family)


common names: zygocactus, Christmas cactus

Frédéric Schlumberger (1804–1865) was a leading collector of cacti and grew them at his home, Château des Anthieux, near Rouen in France. He was probably among the first in Europe to cultivate this species, which had been discovered in Brazil and introduced into Europe by Alan Cunningham, of Kew Gardens, in about 1816. Cacti are usually thought of as dry desert plants, but Schlumbergera are epiphytes that normally grow high up in the trees of the jungles and rainforests of Brazil. They thrive on the rotting vegetable waste that gathers in the clefts and crevices of the tree branches, enjoying comfortable dappled shade and plenty of warmth and moisture.

Truncata is from truncatus, Latin for ‘cut off’. Schlumbergera truncata is called ‘Christmas Cactus’ in Europe, as it is grown extensively there as a house plant that blooms round about Christmas time. Indeed, growers will often go to great lengths in applying jealously guarded secret means of getting the plants to put out their first flowers on Christmas Day itself. Zygocactus comes from two Greek words, ζυγος (zygos), yoked, and κακτος (kaktos), the ancient Greek name for the plant cardoon (Cynara cardunculus), also called the artichoke thistle, a member of the thistle family related to the Globe artichoke. It is native to the Mediterranean, where it was domesticated in ancient times. ‘Yoked’ refers to the way the stems are joined.

The heavy toothing on the leaves makes them look a little like shellfish claws, and in the USA they are known as crab claw or Thanksgiving cactus. In fact, they are not leaves at all, but flattened twigs growing from a think woody rib, which is really a branch. Young plants tend to be quite upright and bushy, but as they age the branches turn down, creating an attractive weeping shape.

What was till recently the usual variety seen locally is the one with bright cerise pink flowers, X bridgesii. In recent years many more varieties have been bred, notably White Christmas. From White Christmas has come the very popular group Fantasies. These include Christmas Fantasy, Orange Fantasy, Gold Fantasy, Lavender Fantasy, Magic Fantasy, Sleigh Bells and Holiday Splendor. There is also now a group available called Showcase Zygo, whose foliage tends to be more upright than the Fantasies.

These cacti are great favourites of the sunbirds, who love the copious nectar they produce. The birds insert their long beaks into the base of the flowers, often while hovering. On Magnetic Island, the flowering season is usually June, July and August. A large selection of varieties will lengthen the season, as they often flower at slightly different times. X bridgesii will often have two flowering periods, at the beginning and the end of the season.


Photographs taken at Picnic Bay 2007
Page last updated 1st April 2019