Many of us get a plant for the Holidays.  It may be given to us, or we buy one.  I have outlined below a little bit about the three most common ones and how to care for them.

1.          POINSETTIA’

          Do you remember not so many years ago, if you had a new poinsettia plant and you put it in a draft or even if it got cold on the way home, it would drop all of its leaves? Or that it was always red? The plants available to us for the past few years now come in different colors and shades of color, and are not quite so temperamental. However, they are sensitive to cold drafts and do like to be warm.  When you get any plant from the store this time of year, be sure and cover it with a sack when you take it to the car or take it from the car into the house. And do not put any plant close to a furnace register or it will dry out fast. 

          ‘Poinsettias’ are actually shrubs that will grow 6 to 7 feet tall if planted outside in a non-freeze area.  They are natives of Mexico and named after a diplomat (Poinsett) who brought them to this country. They are kept small by breeding and chemicals.  The true flowers are those little yellow “things” in the center of the red bracts.  Look them over carefully when buying a plant.  If the yellow flowers are open your plant will not last as long as they are already blooming. 

          Don’t drown your plant.  They like it damp but not wet and if kept in good lighting will still be red (or whatever color you bought) in June when you can cut it back and plant it outside.  The cuttings will root into new plants. 

          Most people throw old plants away but if you like challenges, try to get one to re-bloom for the next Christmas. The ‘Poinsettia’ is a “short day” plant.  That means in its natural habitat it will start to bloom when the days get shorter. You can simulate that and force it to bloom for Christmas. To do this you need to start in September by putting the plant in complete darkness for 14 hours per day and then in bright light for 10 hours per day. The easiest way to do this is to find a big box to place over the plant at night. Put the plant in a spare bedroom at 6:00 p.m. every night and put the box over the plant. At 8:00 a.m. in the morning take the box off and put the plant in a bright light location. A south window is great. You must do this every day for at least 7 to 8 weeks.  If you forget for a day you usually have to start over. The box is needed because even a street light or yard light shining in a bedroom window is not dark enough. You must have it covered. When the leaves start to color, you can stop this process, and leave the plant in a bright sunny location.

          When you get done with this process, the plant will be taller than your original plants unless treated. Spider mites and mealy bugs just love to eat these plants for lunch. Be sure and spray before starting and treat with a Systemic Insecticide.


          Another plant that is popular for the holidays is the ‘Christmas Cactus’ (Zygocactus truncatus). The leaf margins are pointed projections on the flat leaf while the ‘Easter Cactus” (Schlumbergera gaertneri or Rhipsalidopsis rosea) has wavy projections. One article I read said that very seldom do they ever bloom again because they never get the dry cool resting period they need.  However, I have had both of these bloom at the same time

          My ‘Christmas Cactus’, and my ‘Easter Cactus’ spend the summer outside on the east side of the house.  This way they avoid that hot afternoon sun.  About September (Labor Day) I put them in the greenhouse for their cool, dry rest as I don’t turn the heat on until I hear that a freeze warning is coming. A cool (30 to 40 degrees), dry rest seems to be very important to trigger blooming. George has his in an east walkout basement window sill where they get morning sun but are chilled on cold evenings. After that chill and a dry period, the buds start forming.          Blooming is better if they are root bound, so do not repot unless you really need to. When the buds appear I fertilize and begin watering again and bring them into my big south window. The flowers will last longer if the plant is in a bright light but not in direct sunlight. Propagation is easy, just break off a number of the flat leaf segments.  Let them dry for a day or two and then poke into a potting mix.

          I have a pink cactus and a red one.  Last spring they were the same size, quite large.  Rabbits chewed one down halfway before I rescued it.  The other one they didn’t touch. They seemed to have survived and ready to bloom for the Holidays.

3.          CYCLAMEN

          The ‘Cyclamen’ (Cyclamen persicum) is another blooming plant found about Holiday time.  They come in different sizes with the largest as high as 18 inches while the minis may be only 4 to 5 inches tall.

          They are from tubers and usually don’t last very long unless given special care. If you pour water on the tuber it will rot but if the roots are not kept damp the blooms will not last. ‘Cyclamen’ do best in a cool window. They like misting, and they like damp (not wet) roots at all times. North windows (bright, indirect light) are their favorite spot with 50 to 60 degrees F temperatures. They will bloom for several months if location is to their liking.     

          According to an Iowa State University publication, “In their native Mediterranean habitat, ‘cyclamens’ grow in cool sites with annual moist and dry cycles. After blooming, the leaves yellow and die as the plant slowly declines.  At this time, gradually reduce the frequency of watering to simulate the dry season and initiate dormancy.  The dormancy or rest period should last approximately 6 to 8 weeks during the late spring and early summer.  During dormancy plants are normally kept in a cool, shaded location.  In mid-to late summer, remove the plants from their resting location.  Place the dormant plants in a cool, well lit location and resume watering.  Keep the soil moist but not soggy and fertilize periodically.  As the flower buds appear in fall or winter, place plants for prime viewing and enjoyment.” (Horticulture and Home Pest News for March 7, 2003, page 20.)

          I have had better luck with the minis. I put the tuber only halfway into the soil when replanting. If they like where they are they may not go dormant.  In this case set them outside into a shady spot in June.

Copyright 2005