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Plants make great holiday gifts. Unfortunately, the pleasure they give is usually short-lived - sometimes lasting only until the festivities are over. Christmas cacti and Norfolk Island pine trees are good examples of plant gifts that keep on giving long after the holidays are over - sometimes for generations into the future.
The first true "Christmas cactus" (Schlumbergera x buckleyi) was bred in England in the late 1840s, a hybrid produced by crossing S. russelliana and S. truncata. Over the years, many new varieties have been developed, including the Thanksgiving and Easter cactus. These days it's hard to find a "true" Christmas cactus for sale commercially, although many of the early cultivars still exist and continue to be passed down privately through families. Most of the plants marketed and sold as "Christmas cacti" today are really cultivars of Thanksgiving cacti (Schlumbergera truncata). Because they bloom earlier than the true Christmas cactus, they can be more easily manipulated to peak in time for the holiday season.
Light: Most varieties prefer a well-lit location away from direct sunlight. Can be moved to a shady spot outdoors in summer.
Temperature: 55 to 70 degrees F during active growing period; 50 to 55 degrees F during rest.
Water: Water when soil begins to dry out. Treat as regular houseplant during flowering period (December/January) and during active growth (April-September). Water infrequently during resting period (February/March) and also during "pre-flowering" period (September/November) until flower buds begin to form. Dislikes hard water.
Humidity: Enjoys frequent misting of leaves.
The most challenging part of growing Norfolk pine (especially in rooms heated during the winter) is keeping the air around them humid. Plants should be kept well away from heating vents and have their leaves and branches misted daily.
As the plant grows, it self-prunes - the lower branches turn brown and drop off. However, if this happens rapidly or if several of the plant's upper branches start to turn brown, it could be a sign that the air is too dry, or that the plant isn't receiving enough light.
Light: Bright, indirect light indoors; enjoys being moved to a semi-shady location outdoors for the summer. Water: Water regularly from spring to fall; reduce watering in winter.
Temperature: Prefers average house temperatures during the active growing season. Keep plants cooler in winter, but give them plenty of light.
Humidity: Mist leaves frequently, especially in rooms where the air is heated in winter.
Unfortunately, it seems like all the stores around us have cacti that bloom out by late November. Ticks me off, because I can never find them actually flowering at Christmastime!