Christmas Houseplants: Practical Gardening Series

Red Cyclamen

During the Christmas season poinsettias, Norfolk pines, Christmas cactus, cyclamen and rosemary are often purchased to decorate our homes or given as gifts.  Knowing how to care for these popular holiday plants can be a challenge. So for those of you with the not-so-green thumb, here are some basic care instructions.

Poinsettia:  This is the most frequently purchased plant for Christmas. It ranges from tones of red to white. The colored leafy bracts, which we think of as flowers, can be smooth, deeply lobed or tightly crinkled as with ‘Winter Rose’.

Winter Rose Photo by Lisa Hallett Taylor

This plant is touchy to extremes in moisture, temperature and drafts. To keep it looking good takes some skill and many people treat it as disposable much like cut flowers. The poinsettia likes a lot of sun, so if it is next to windows rotate the plant daily to allow light on all leaf surfaces. Keep it in a warm room of 70-75 degrees, away from heat vents and cool drafts. Water when soil is dry. Too much water and a chill cause the leaves and bracts to curl and drop. By late winter this plant wants to take a rest and its leaves will begin to fade. Lay it on its side in a cool dark basement. In May, prune it to about 4”, water well and plant in the garden.

Extensive research, including studies by Ohio State University, has shown that the poinsettia is quite safe and not toxic to children or animals; if consumed it will cause digestive expulsion.

White Christmas cactus in my office.

Christmas Cactus (Schlumbergera sp.): First of all, this is not a true cactus and requires regular watering. It is one of my favorite house plants. I have a white one growing next to my desk and, down the hall, a large coral bloomer that enjoys a west window.

When grown in greenhouses they are regulated to bloom for December sales. In my home they bloom twice a year; in early November and, if not pinched back, again in late winter. To set buds these plants like it cool, around 60-65 degrees. Once buds are formed keep them at about 70 degrees and away from heat vents.

Grow in bright indirect sunlight, rotating plant by one quarter each time you water. Keep soil evenly moist but not soggy while blooming. When done flowering, water sparingly and cut back at a leaf node to encourage new branching (and more buds!). When new growth appears in the spring, use fertilizer every other watering.

Norfolk Pine: This plant is often decorated as a living Christmas tree. Easy to care for, it can grow quite large.

It likes it cool, around 62-68 degrees. Grow in bright indirect light, but never in full sun. It does best about 4’ from a bright South facing window. Place closer to windows with sheers or awnings. Rotate by a quarter turn each time you water with a standard fertilizer. Allow soil to dry almost completely between watering but mist the needles with cool water 2-3 times a week if your house has low humidity.

Rosemary: In a previous column I wrote about rosemary being a common household herb during Jesus’ life.  It was used to repel insects and would have been placed in the straw of the manger.

Grow rosemary in a clay pot to allow the soil to dry completely between watering, place in bright full sun with good air movement but away from cold drafts and heat vents. Fertilize once a month with diluted solution.

Cyclamen: This plant is commercially forced to bloom at specific times of the year. Outdoors in mild climates it has a dormant period and then comes to life flowering in late winter to early spring.

Grow your plant in bright indirect sunlight, rotate by a quarter turn each time you water. Water at the side of the pot when soil feels dry to touch, keeping the crown dry. Mist 2-3 times a week or place on gravel in a tray partially filled with water.

Snip off old flowering stalks near crown. Eventually the plant will start to decline, needing a dormant period to rest. Place it in cool dark basement until spring and plant in the garden when soil temperature is above 50 degrees.

Bulbs that usually come as a gift kit are the Amaryllis and Paperwhite Narcissus. Following the packaging instructions will bring beautiful flowers in mid-winter.

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