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Did You Receive a Plant for Christmas? Next Steps!

Beautiful amaryllis blooms observe a wintry scene from their perch indoors.

Plants are popular gifts during the winter holiday season. Favorites include Christmas and Thanksgiving cacti, amaryllis, paperwhites, and of course the ubiquitous poinsettia. Do you struggle with caring for your new plant, or even whether or not to keep or discard it? Given proper care, some plants like Christmas cacti continue to thrive after the holidays. Amaryllis and paperwhites are a bit tricky but doable, with mixed results. And the poinsettia – join the great debate – keep it or throw it out after the holidays. Let’s look at some of these plants and their needs. Perhaps you will keep a holiday plant and add it to your houseplant collection.

Poinsettias growing wild in the tropics.

All of these plants originate in warm climates – tropical, subtropical, or arid – being consistently warmer than most areas of the US. It is important to keep this in mind. Most holiday plants in the retail market are produced in greenhouses with controlled growing conditions. Keeping them as houseplants require conditions similar to their native habitats, replicating proper light, water, and temperature levels.

Christmas cactus (Schlumbergera bridgesii) or Thanksgiving cactus (Schlumbergera truncata) The Christmas or Thanksgiving cacti make great house plants. Fairly easy to care for and long-lived, anticipating their annual blooms heralding the holiday season is gratifying. To provide the best care for this plant, let’s consider the native environment – coastal southeastern Brazil - warm, rocky with high humidity. Christmas cacti in other climates live best indoors as houseplants, with consistent temperatures (60-70F), regular watering and well-drained soil. Provide water more frequently during the warm months and less in cool weather. To encourage annual blooming, restrict light access in the months preceding Christmas (12-14 hrs./day in darkness). Although, once my Christmas cacti acclimated to their indoor location (atop a bookshelf) they bloom every year without special treatment. Re-pot these plants infrequently – they don’t mind being pot-bound. Fertilize with a houseplant fertilizer (10-10-10) once a month after blooming has ceased. Stop fertilizing in the fall and restart after blooming ends.

Paperwhite bulbs in bloom. Photo by Donna Diamond

Bulbs – Amaryllis (Hippeastrum sp.) and Paperwhites (Narcissus papyraceus)

Most Christmas plants from bulbs are discarded (composted, hopefully!) when flowers fade. Keeping amaryllis or paperwhites and getting them to bloom again requires some knowledge and skill. All bulbs need a period of dormancy in their normal growing cycle to produce blooms. Bulbs in your garden like daffodils and tulips go into dormancy underground once blooming is over for the season. Bulbs appearing in the market in time for Christmas come from growers who “forced” bulbs to bloom at the appointed time. Forcing is the process of hastening maturity by providing artificial conditions, such as increased warmth, thus speeding up bloom time. More importantly, the native environments for both amaryllis and paperwhites are warm, with no periods of frost. Keep these bulbs if you can provide consistent warmth (> 50° F) both in dormancy and growth, and special reblooming requirements. After blooming, cut back flower stem to 2 inches. Keep leaves intact. Move container to a warm, sunny location. Water lightly. Fertilize every 2 months (10-10-10). In late summer, stop watering and allow leaves to turn yellow. The amaryllis is now going dormant, a necessary stage for flower production. Place container in a cool, dark location for two months. When new floral stem and leaves appear, move to a sunny location, and begin watering. The amaryllis will need 6-8 weeks of growth before blooming. Paperwhites are a bit more difficult. It can take several years to get them to bloom a gain. If you do want to try, use the same protocol as for amaryllis.

Poinsettias in a greenhouse getting ready for the holiday season.

Poinsettia (Euphorbia pulcherrima)

The first sight of poinsettias each holiday season is exciting. I love seeing the new colors and cultivated varieties each year. Produced in greenhouses, poinsettias receive special treatment (light restriction, nutrients, and growth regulators) to produce the potted plant seen at holiday time. Potted poinsettias are generally short-lived in many areas of the US. As natives to Mexico and Central America, poinsettias require consistent warmth. In California and some southern states (zones 9-11), poinsettias grow outdoors as tall, dense shrubs.

Cutting tips on a poinsettia plant in production.

In cooler winter hardiness zones, keep poinsettias as potted house plants. To encourage reblooming, keep poinsettia in a sunny location indoors. Water lightly when soil surface is dry. Cut back leggy stems. Begin fertilizer application (10-10-10) when new growth appears. Move plant outdoors when evening temperatures stay above 50°F. Keep in a location protected from direct sunlight and wind. Continue to trim leggy stems throughout the summer. At the end of summer, hard prune main stems to encourage side growth. Bring plant indoors as evening temperatures drop near 50°F and place in a sunny location. Continue with regular watering and fertilizing.

Poinsettias need a “short day” to produce blooms – 12-14 hours of darkness during an 8-to-10-week period. To create artificial darkness, beginning in mid-October, cover plant with a large box from approximately 6 pm to 8 am every day, adjusting for changes in sunset times. If all goes well, the poinsettia will produce small, yellow flowers subtended by characteristic colorful bracts.

Try your hand at conserving the health and vigor of your Christmas plants. As a bonus, you will increase your plant knowledge and horticultural skills.

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