Provided by the Western Massachusetts Master Gardener Association
www.wmassmastergardeners.org.

December 2001 - Holiday and Gift Plants
By Frank Schulte, Master Gardener

Selection

Select only those plants which appear to be insect and disease free.   Check the undersides of the foliage and the axils of leaves for signs of insects or disease. Select plants that look sturdy, clean, well potted, shapely, and well-covered with leaves.

Choose plants with healthy foliage. Avoid plants which have yellow or chlorotic leaves, brown leaf margins, wilted or water soaked foliage,   spots or blotches and spindly growth. In addition, avoid leaves with mechanical damage.

Remember that it is easier to purchase a plant which requires the same environmental conditions your residence has to offer than to alter the environment of your home or office to suit the plants.

Care in the home

Many plants can be grown to provide color during the Christmas season,  and flourish with proper care. While the poinsettia has become the traditional holiday plant, the cyclamen and the Jerusalem Cherry are also beautiful for this time. The cyclamen and poinsettia are grown for their colorful flowers and bracts, whereas the Jerusalem cherry is grown for its small, red fruit. However, in order to achieve holiday color, these plants must be given proper care throughout the year. Other plants appearing during the holidays and all year round include the amaryllis, azalea, begonia, Christmas pepper, chrysanthemum, cyclamen, gloxinia, holiday cactus Jerusalem Cherry, kalanchoe, and paperwhite narcissus, all of which flourish beautifully as houseplants.

Proper care varies with species, but there are some general recommendations to follow when caring for these plants. Most species do best in a location where as much natural light as possible is available. Optimal temperatures include a daytime temperature of 65 to 75 degrees farenheit (F), and temperatures around 50 to 55 degrees F during the night. However, there are some exceptions; the cyclamen and paperwhite narcissus would hold up better at 60 to 65 degrees F during the daytime and 50 degrees F at night.  African violets, poinsettias, and begonias should be kept  warmer at night, at temperatures around 60 degrees F. Because most homes are extremely dry compared to the greenhouse environment where they were grown, it is recommended that the plants be placed in groups or on trays with water.   To help prolong the flowering period, plants can also be placed in rooms with higher humidity, such as the bathroom or kitchen. Usually, however, the plants should be kept in a COOLER room, away from warm air currents.   The plants should be checked daily and watered as needed. If the pot has a drainage hole, enough water should be applied so some will drain out the bottom, but the plants should NOT stand in water for extended periods of time. Most of these plants do not need any fertilizer during their blooming time.  Attempts at reblooming are usually not recommended except for  amaryllis and holiday cactus.

Some of the more popular holiday plants

Poinsettia

The poinsettia requires bright light and should be kept away from drafts. A temperature between 65 and 70 F is ideal. Avoid temperatures below 60  and above 75 F. Keep plants well watered but do not over-water. Some of the newer, long-lasting varieties can be kept attractive all winter.

Gardeners frequently ask whether they can carry their poinsettias over to bloom again next year. It is questionable whether the results are worth the effort as the quality of home-grown plants seldom equals that of commercially grown plants. However, for those who wish to try, the  following procedure can be followed.

After the bracts fade or fall, set the plants where they will receive indirect light and temperatures around 55 to 60 F. Water sparingly during this time.  Cut the plants back to within about 5 inches from the ground and re-pot in fresh soil in March or April. As soon as new growth begins,  place in a well-lighted window. After danger of frost, place the pot out of doors in a partially shaded spot. Pinch the new growth back to get a plant  with several stems. Do not pinch after August 20th.  About Labor Day, or as soon as the nights are cool, bring the plant indoors. Continue to grow them in a sunny room with a night temperature of about 65 F.

The poinsettia blooms only during short days. To initiate blooms, exclude artificial light, either by covering with a light-proof box each evening or placing in an unlighted room or closet for a minimum of 12 hours of darkness.  Maintain a night temperature of 65 F during flower bud iniation.  Plants require full light in the daytime, so be sure to return them to a sunny window. Start the short day treatment in about mid-September to have blooms between December 1 and Christmas.

Today┬╣s poinsettias have been selected for their outstanding color, free-branching growth, early flowering, longevity in the home and bright yellow cyathia‹the true flowers‹that do not abort under poor-light conditions. The colorful red, pink or white appendages to the yellow cyathia are actually bracts, not petals.

Contrary to popular belief, poinsettias are not poisonous. Extensive testing conducted by the Ohio State University resulted in a clean bill of health for the poinsettia. So, enjoy your holidays by including a poinsettia as a part of your decor.

Azalea

Most azaleas bought from florists, supermarkets and other flower shops are special varieties developed for the greenhouse. If planted outdoors after use, they won't likely survive the winter.

It's best to buy azaleas when flower buds are just starting to show  color.  Flowers will be fully opened in one to three days and provide several weeks of peak color. Medium light intensity and cool temperatures will make the flowers last longer. Don't let plants dry out.

Amaryllis

Amaryllis are generally available from Christmas to Easter. These plants flower four to six weeks after bulbs are planted, with orange, red, white and pink varieties. Individual blooms may last three to four days. A flower stalk usually produces three or four large, trumpet-shaped blooms; large bulbs may produce more than one flower stalk.

To reflower, place the plant in bright light (outdoors when temperatures permit). Allow the foliage to fully develop; fertilize and water throughout the summer months. In later summer or fall, as the leaves begin to die back, water less often. When the leaves have died completely, allow the soil

To dry out and place the bulb in a cool, dry place for several (four to eight) weeks before resuming watering.

 

Chrysanthemum

Two types of mums are sold at retail outlets: pot mums (killed by frost) and garden mums. Garden mums are generally available in the fall as a flowering pot plant. They can be planted outdoors and are hardy through the winter.

Garden mums are perennials and will flower each year.

Pot mums are greenhouse varieties available year-round; they provide Three to four weeks of enjoyment and should be discarded after flowering, as they are hard to reflower. Buy pot mums when flower buds show full color.  Diffuse, bright light levels and 55- to 60-degree F temperatures will prolong peak bloom. Do not let the leaves wilt.

Cyclamen

Cyclamen are excellent gift plants that are usually available from October through March. White, pink, lavender, purple, red and bicolor varieties are available. The plant produces many flowers, remaining in flower two to four months with proper care. Cool indoor temperatures (50-60 degrees F) such as may be found at an east or north window during the winter will make the flowers last longer. Careful watering is essential. Plants are easily damaged from overwatering or underwatering. After flowering has stopped,  gradually water less often. After the leaves die, allow the tuberous stem to remain dry six weeks before rewatering. New foliage will appear after watering resumes, and bright light and cool temperatures may sometimes produce a plant that will reflower.

Kalanchoe

Kalanchoes are available year-round in many colors. Flowers will last three to six weeks in mild temperatures (55-65 degrees F) and medium light, if the plants are kept watered. Using manufacturers' recommended levels of houseplant fertilizer once a month helps. The plants will rebloom if you put them in artificial short days (long nights) for six to eight weeks.  They can be grown successfully if kept in sunny windows or placed outdoors in late spring.

Holiday Cactus

Actually, three related plant species look like Christmas cacti. The three types bloom at different times of the year and can be found in flower at Thanksgiving, Christmas and Easter. All three require bright sunlight and moderate moisture levels. South windows are excellent places for "holiday" cactus. After the six weeks of holiday blooming, remove spent flowers and apply a houseplant fertilizer. Plants can be grown outdoors in semi-shady places. Stem pieces of three segments or more are easily propagated.   Holiday cacti should bloom about the same time every year.

Ornamental Pepper

Ornamental pepper is grown for its decorative fruits, especially during the Christmas season. Grow them in full sun and in any good potting soil.  Avoid overwatering, the plants may be bushier if kept on the dry side. Light fertilization keeps the foliage from yellowing, but avoid over  fertilization. The plants may be pinched as necessary to keep them bushy. Once the plants have fruited they can be discarded. The fruits should not be eaten because of hotness or possible pesticide applications. Cold temperatures can cause yellowing and dropping of leaves.

Seeds planted in July give fruiting plants for Christmas.

Paperwhite Narcissus

Paperwhite narcissus is one of the easiest bulbs to force if you want a beautiful floral display for the holidays. With no preparation requirements, they can be planted as soon as you get them home. Be sure to buy bulbs that are firm to the touch and have no discoloration.

Start with an inch or two of sterile potting soil in a shallow, decorative container. Place the bulbs close together, nearly touching each other, with their pointed end up. Add more potting soil to hold them in place, leaving the top half of the bulbs uncovered. Water thoroughly and often enough to keep moist. Paperwhites can also be grown in water alone (use marbles or pebbles to hold the bulbs upright). They require no fertilizer.

After planting, place the bulbs in a well lit but cool room. When the shoots are about an inch tall they can then be moved to a warmer location. Paperwhite blooms will last from 4 to 8 weeks. They bloom only once,  and when done, should be discarded.

Jerusalem Cherry

The Jerusalem Cherry is very pretty and Christmasy with its deep green foliage and bright red berries. It needs a cool temperature, bright light with some direct sunlight and needs to be kept moist at all times. This plant also likes to be misted regularly.

WARNING!!! The Jerusalem Cherry is a member of the nightshade family and it is very poisonous, especially the berries. It's a double threat because children could mistake the red berries for cherries, so keep this plant well out of the reach of small fingers.

I hope you receive many lovely plants this coming Holiday season, and I hope they help to Deck your Halls with Christmas Cheer.