If you are one of the myriad Southern Californians who recently bought a poinsettia, a Christmas cactus, holly or any of the other plants that are traditionally associated with the holiday season--or if you were lucky enough to have gotten one as a gift--you most likely have some questions about your new acquisition:
Will it continue to live indoors? How long will it last? Will it bloom again? How should I care for it?
Well, let’s answer these questions one by one, plant by plant, so you can keep your holiday plants flourishing for many holiday seasons to come.
The poinsettia, (pronounced poin- sett -ia, not point- setta ) produces its vibrant, showy display during the winter months and is as closely associated with Christmas as Christmas trees.
The poinsettia produces spectacular red, pink, white or mottled leaves near the top of the plant that most people mistake for flowers. These are called bracts . The poinsettia flowers are those tiny little yellow buttons at the tops of the stems.
To keep your poinsettia thriving for the longest possible time, place it in bright light, away from drafts, and do not allow the soil to dry out completely between waterings. When the bracts begin to turn yellow and drop off--and they inevitably will--you have a couple of choices:
You can either discard the plant and buy a new one next year or you can prune the plant back to within 6 or 8 inches of the top of the soil, keep it in a bright spot and water regularly just before the soil dries out. By midsummer it will be a lush, full foliage plant that you can keep growing year in and year out.
If you want to coax your poinsettia back into bloom next Christmas, you’ll have to keep it in a dark closet for 12 to 14 hours a night, every night, for six to eight weeks beginning next October. Remember to put the plant away each night and then bring it out to its sunny location every day or this process will not work.
If you have an outside area and feel so inclined, you can plant your poinsettia outdoors in a sunny spot and it will grow into a large, almost tree-like plant that will bloom every year without having to go into a closet.
By the way, there’s lots of folklore explaining the connection between Christmas and the poinsettia, but one of the nicest stories tells us that one Christmas, many years ago somewhere in Mexico, a little girl cried because she had no flowers to place at the manger. A vision came to the child and told her to pick a nearby weed, place it at the altar and wait. She did, and soon after, the weed was miraculously turned into a tall, beautiful poinsettia.
This most interesting terrestrial cactus--a cactus that lives in soil instead of desert sand--has small, green, leaf-like stems and produces bell-like flowers from the tips of the stems in December, January, and February. (Another variety, S. gaertneril , will produce its flowers in the spring and is commonly known as Easter cactus).
The flowers are usually red, white or pink and only last a few days, but they’re fabulous while they do last and make a dazzling display. A Christmas cactus in full bloom can look like an outer-space Christmas tree dripping with velvety ornaments.
The most common complaints I hear about this plant are “My Christmas cactus doesn’t bloom,” and “the buds form, but they fall off before they open.” To help your Christmas cactus bloom, give it lots of bright light during the day but try to see that it gets at least 12 hours of darkness each night, starting around the end of October. You might just put it in the closet with your poinsettia.
To keep the buds from dropping off, provide humidity by spraying the plant daily and keeping it on a tray filled with pebbles and water. As for watering, unlike desert cacti, terrestrial cacti should not be allowed to dry out completely, keept he soil slightly moist at all times.
Commonly known as English holly, this perennial Christmas favorite is equally at home in Europe, North Africa, western Asia or your Southern California back yard.
Holly is an evergreen plant that outdoors, in its native habitats and most sections of the United States, will grow to 40 feet or more, with leathery, ovate, spiny leaves. Only the female trees bear fruit--the familiar bright red berries.
For centuries people have decked the halls with boughs of holly at Christmastime. Its bright green and red colors are very much part of the festive season. And in ancient Rome, holly was considered a symbol of peace and good will.
If you got a small potted holly plant this past season, despite what it might say on the accompanying tag, you won’t have much success with the plant indoors.
Bright, bright light and lots of water will keep it going inside for a month or two, but it really belongs outdoors, where it will thrive for years planted in the ground. Each Christmas your female plants will burst forth with bunches of red berries to remind you that the birth of a New Year is right around the corner.
Perhaps you bought or received an amaryllis already in bloom, or a gift-boxed bulb that you planted yourself. In either event, you’re probably still enjoying the gorgeous, trumpet-like flowers that appear in colors ranging from white to red to pink to coral.
Once these flowers fade and die, probably within three or four weeks after they begin to bloom, you can reuse the bulb next season. Wait for the foliage to die, then store the bulb in a cool, dry place.
Around the beginning of November, re-pot the bulb, bring the pot near a light source, begin watering regularly to keep the soil slightly moist, and by mid-December you should have gorgeous blossoms once again.
To prolong the blooms as long as possible, keep the plant in a cool spot that gets bright, filtered light.
Another plant that sells briskly at Christmastime according to Windy Overbach, of Rolling Greens Nursery in Culver City, include Cyclamen ( Cyclamen persicum ), a beautiful flowering plant that relishes bright light, cool temperatures and lots of water. It grows from a tuber that can be stored once the blooms die back in February, and be repotted in October or November to bloom again.
Azaleas ( Rhododendron sp. ), a flowering plant that thrives indoors in bright, sunny locations with regular watering so the soil never dries out, takes weekly feedings with a liquid houseplant food, and an occasional pruning. Azaleas will also do very well planted outdoors in a spot that gets morning sun.
A young, small blue spruce tree ( Picea pungens ), often decorated with lots of fun little ornaments and ribbons, is another popular Christmastime plant. This blue spruce is an evergreen conifer and like all true pines, will only last a month or so indoors, even with lots of bright sunlight and regular watering. Put it outdoors as soon as possible, in a pot on a patio, or planted in the ground.
If you don’t have a patio or an outdoors, in the true spirit of the season, give your little miniature Christmas tree to a friend who does.
A gift of a plant is appropriate any time, not just at Christmas. So this New Year, make one more resolution: Next time a gift-giving occasion arises, make your gift a beautiful, healthy houseplant. What could be better than a gift of life?