The Christmas Cactus: flowers for under "gas light"
Updated: Mar 31, 2023
'Christmas Cactus', painting by Christian Mollback
I was pondering what to write for Christmas, when a friend reminded me that I’d written a short Facebook post a while back about Miss Ellen Willmott’s photograph of Epiphyllum truncatum – a species of Christmas cactus, published in The Garden magazine in January 1897. I love these plants and have, over the years, often bought one around this time of year to cheer up the grey and gloomy days of winter – so it seems appropriate for a Christmas post.
Epiphyllums are described in The Garden in 1896 as being autumn and winter-blooming plants for the “stove and intermediate house”, and that “few [plants] excel this beautiful genus when grown into nice sized bushes and pyramids from 3 feet to 6 feet high”. In their opinion, it’s only when these plants reach such a size, and the plants are laden with their richly-coloured flowers, “that the full beauty of the Epiphyllum becomes so striking”. Unfortunately, none of my previous Christmas cacti ever had the chance to develop into such mature plants as, although a keen gardener, I’m notoriously bad with house plants, and they all eventually gave up and died in some dusty corner due to my neglect.
However, now that the nights have well and truly ‘drawn in’, and the Christmas decorations are up, I’m surely not the only one to buy a Christmas cactus. There are now a myriad of cultivars for us to choose from, with flowers of various colours. Some are a little more difficult to grow than others, but it’s generally accepted that they cope well with our centrally-heated homes.
The various species of Christmas cacti are natives of the mountains of Rio de Janeiro in Brazil, but are most often cultivated as a pot plant in tropical and temperate regions. In their native environment these plants grow on rocks, as well as on trees (i.e. epiphytic) in damp, but shallow soil and moss and, although close to the equator, they often grow at high altitudes in warm and humid areas which can become cold, but rarely freeze. Although they are a member of the cactaceae family, these plants are not actually cacti, but succulents – and the bright tubular flowers are actually adapted for pollination by hummingbirds!
'Christmas Cactus and Hummingbird'. Watercolour by Emily Thornton
The early English common name of ‘Christmas cactus’ covers cultivars of many different groups, but in Europe and the UK – where the plants are largely produced for sale in the period before Christmas, it remains the most widely used common name in many languages. For example, cactus de Noel in French and cacto de Navidad in Spanish. It’s also the Christmas cactus in Canada but, in the US, where the plants are produced for the Thanksgiving holiday in November, it’s the Thanksgiving cactus.
One of the most common of the Christmas cactus, Epiphyllum truncatum, does have a somewhat complicated naming history (like so many plants). After a few name changes in the past, it’s now known as Schlumbergera truncata, although according to US magazine The Cactus Explorer of December 2014, this plant is also known under one of its earlier names of Zygocactus truncate. But it was back in the early 1850’s that horticulturalist William Buckley crossed two species, Schlumbergera truncata and Schlumbergera russelliana, from which the familiar Christmas cactus we buy today originates.
However, whichever name it's known by, the Christmas cactus is an interesting plant, and this post allows me to showcase various beautiful botanical images of the various species and cultivars, as well as Miss Willmott's black and white photograph.
'Welcome to Spring - Epiphyllum Watercolour' by Hao Aiken
Cactus truncatus: The earliest image (and name) of the Christmas cactus I have found is this one below from The Botanical Register of 1823. Although it was first botanically described by the English naturalist Adrian Haworth in 1819 from a plant cultivated at Kew, and the species was widely grown in the succulent collections of European horticulturalists before this date. The accompanying text provides little information about the plant, only briefly explaining that this newly imported species was cultivated in a hothouse and blossomed the previous summer; while a 'Mrs Harrison of Liverpool' informed them that she had successfully raised a plant from a seed from Brazil. The Botanical Register also pointed out that the blossoms on the plant pictured actually incline downwards (as you’d expect from a Christmas cactus), but the plate could only show the actual size of the blooms if drawn upright!
'Cactus truncatus', folio 696. From 'The Botanical Register', Vol. 9, 1823
Although The Botanical Register refers to this plant as Cactus truncatus, it was also already known as Epiphyllum truncatum, and features in later publications under this name. Two examples are shown below.
'New varieties of Epiphyllum truncatum' from the French publication 'Revue Horticole', Series 4, Vol. 58, 1886
'Epiphyllum truncatum', Plate 118 from 'Favourite Flowers of Garden and Greenhouse', Vol. 2, 1896 by E. Step and D. Bois
Epiphyllum russelliana: a species of Christmas cactus discovered in Brazil in 1837 by George Gardner (see Note), whose patron was John Russell, 6th Duke of Bedford. It was first named for science by William Hooker (see Note) as Epiphyllum russellianum – at Gardner’s suggestion, in honour of his patron. The Duke had, according to the entry in The Botanical Magazine (most likely written by Hooker), already amassed a large collection of cacti at Woburn Abbey “as must be seen to be appreciated, and with which none in the kingdom, that I know of, can be compared…”.
The Botanical Magazine also explains that this "beautiful species of Epiphyllum is common on the stems of trees, and occasionally upon rocks on the Organ Mountains of Brazil. Its nearest affinity is to Epiphyllum truncatum, that favourite ornament of our stoves, the habit and general appearance of the two plants being quite similar…”.
'Epiphyllum russelliana' by Walter Fitch. From 'The Botanical Magazine', Vol.66, tab 3717, 1839
The entry for this plant in The Botanical Magazine is particularly interesting, as it quotes directly from a letter of Gardner’s detailing his discovery of the plant, and provides a fascinating insight into such plant-hunting activities and their dependence on financial support from botanical institutions, plant nurseries or, as in Gardner's case, a wealthy patron.
“Through dense masses of large bamboos… we had cut our way up the Organ Mountains, till we came, after a toilsome day’s journey, to a small waterfall, where we encamped for the night. On the trunks of the larger trees…I saw abundance of Epiphyllum truncatum beautifully in flower, and higher up on the mountain, the next morning, I found a lovely new species.. much resembling Epiphyllum truncatum, equally large, but…more graceful…and [with] brighter-coloured blossoms… I am sure you will be delighted with it, and I do trust, if ever I am spared to return to England [and Gardner may not have been exaggerating here, such were the dangers of plant-hunting expeditions], that I shall see it there as universally cultivated as the [other] species…".
Gardner duly packed several Wardian cases with living plants to send off to the Duke of Bedford for his collection, as well as to the Glasgow Botanic Garden [see my post The Wardian Case: preventing damage to plants by "monkeys and parakeets"]. In his letter, Gardner added that "It gives me great pleasure to dedicate this discovery to my liberal patron, His Grace the Duke of Bedford; and I hope you will agree with me in thinking that its beauty renders it worthy to bear such an illustrious name”.
Epiphyllum truncatum violaceum: described in Paxton's Magazine of Botany and Register of Plants in 1841, as having a dwarf habit with “its gracefully half-drooping branches, the singular form, interesting disposition, and admirable tints of its flowers, with their development in the depth of winter, when most succulents are enjoying complete repose, render it an invaluable acquisition to any garden. And if the lovely hues of its blossoms are admitted as one of its principal attractions, the variety here… must stand pre-eminent”. The plant used for the drawing was from a nursery in Tooting, in London, whose owner had imported the plants from Brazil some years earlier.
'Epiphyllum truncatum violaceum' from 'Paxton’s Magazine of Botany and Register of Plants', Vol. 8, 1841
The two Epiphyllum gaertneri species depicted below are, basically, the same and, for the entry in Curtis's Botanical Magazine, Joseph Hooker (see Note) wrote that, having reviewed this plant, he thought there was not much difference between E. Russellianum and E. Gaertneri, and therefore proposed Gaertneri to be considered only as a ‘variety’, rather than a separate species.
'Epiphyllum russellianum var. gaertneri' by E.A. von Regel from the German publication 'Gartenflora', Vol.33, t.1172, 1884
'Epiphyllum Gaertneri', t. 7201, Vol. 47, 'Curtis’s Botanical Magazine', 1891
By the way, if you are interested in botanical illustration, Revue Horticole and Gartenflora are available online, both being illustrated botanical magazines similar to Curtis's Botanical Magazine. Revue Horticole was edited by the Societe nationale d'horticulture de France and published between 1829 and 1974, whilst Gartenflora was published between 1851 and 1940, founded and edited by botanist Eduard von Regel.
Epiphyllum delicatum: described in The Gardeners’ Chronicle in December 1902 as a “pretty novelty” very similar to E. truncatum, and recorded in Kew’s Bulletin of Miscellaneous Information as a ‘new garden plant’ for 1902. This plant is now named Schlumbergera truncata var. delicatum.
'Epiphyllum delicatum: Flowers white flushed with pink'. From 'The Gardeners’ Chronicle', December 6, 1902
This plant was considered to be a new species at the time, with white flowers flushed with pink, imported from Brazil by Messrs William Bull & Sons of Chelsea and exhibited by them at the Royal Horticultural Society in November of that year. Although only 4 years earlier, in 1898, it was exhibited under the name E. truncatum Princess, where it was awarded a First Class Certificate.
Interestingly, in 1889, William Watson, Assistant Curator of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, wrote Cactus Culture for Amateurs, in which he points out that Epiphyllums had already “broken from their original or wild characters”, and that E. truncatum and E. russellianum were the only two species recognised by botanists. All the other cultivated plants were “either varieties of, or crosses raised from them”. As usual with plant names, families, species and cultivars, they change over the years and it all gets rather confusing (well, it confuses me...). Today, however, some 6 to 9 species are generally accepted.
Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew herbarium sheet for 'Epiphyllum delicatum'
‘A Retail List of New Beautiful & Rare Plants offered by William Bull, New Plant Merchant, 536 King's Road, Chelsea' dated 1882
Kew's herbarium sheet for Epiphyllum delicatum includes the drawing and article from The Gardeners’ Chronicle of December 6, 1902, along with a letter to the Herbarium from Messrs William Bull & Sons dated 20th November, 1902. The letter mentions a sketch of the plant that the nursery sent to Kew to give “a good idea of the build and set of the flower when fresh”. The letter also advises Kew that the plant was sent to them by “a correspondent at Rio de Janeiro” who only described it as being “found in the mountains”.
William Bull had already been selling these plants for some years, as evidenced by an entry in their 1882 brochure, in the ‘New, Rare and Desirable Stove Plants’ section, for “Epiphyllum, of [all] sorts; these are useful for winter and early spring blooming, and are very showy and attractive. 30 shillings and 42 shillings per doz.”
Epiphyllum trancatum coccineum: and finally, in January 1897, The Garden magazine published an article under the banner 'Stove and Greenhouse' entitled ‘Epiphyllums’, accompanied by Miss Willmott’s photograph of Epiphyllum truncatum coccineum.
'Epiphyllum truncatum coccineum. From a photograph by Miss Willmott, Warley, Essex.' From 'The Garden', January 16, 1897
The article in The Garden describes these plants as being very beautiful when in flower, although not blooming as long as, say, primulas or cyclamens. The Garden was also of the opinion that, while the flowers lasted, they were much more attractive, and that “under gas-light the colours of the flowers are very rich, and anyone with an intermediate house... can have Epiphyllums in abundance".
The only colour image I have found of this plant is the one below from 1849, looking very much like the modern painting of the Christmas cactus at the beginning of this post. This plant must have been quite a sight – especially under gas light!
'Epiphyllum coccineum' or the Scarlet Cactus, Plate 47 from 'Dictionnaire Universel d’Histoire Naturelle Botanique', by Charles d’Orbigny, 1849
Today, we are indeed lucky to have hundreds of colourful cultivars and complex hybrids of Christmas cactus from magenta through red, orange and yellow – and even brilliant white. All raised from crosses involving George Gardner’s introduction from back in the 1830's, and found around the world brightening up homes on dreary winter days.
George Gardner (1810-1849), a Scottish biologist, whose main interest was botany. Encouraged by William Hooker, he published a work on British mosses in 1836 which attracted the attention of the Duke of Bedford, who became his patron. Later the same year, Gardner sailed to Rio de Janeiro to collect natural history specimens in northern Brazil, which were sent to various public botanic gardens as well as to private subscribers to the expedition (including, of course, the Duke).
William Hooker (1785-1865), Kew's first official Director from 1841, and editor of Kew's Curtis's Botanical Magazine from 1826.
Joseph Hooker (1817-1911), son of William, succeeded his father as both Director of Kew and Editor of Curtis's Botanical Magazine in 1865.