This holiday season, consider live plants and flowers for others (and yourself) as a one-size-fits-all gift. A seasonal container of something beautiful on the table can revive a tired body or spirit.

Unfortunately, some holiday plants may have already expired by New Year’s Day, whether by habit, lack of time or knowledge. Awareness of a plant’s needs can help extend its life span for days, months or years. For most gardeners, raising a healthy plant is a gift in itself.

POINSETTIAS

A pot of bright poinsettias (Euphorbia pulcherrima) wrapped in shiny foil is a holiday staple. They have graced holiday mantels, tables and churches for more than a hundred years. En masse, poinsettias are spectacular.

Poinsettias, like many other plants, have a long history. Joel Roberts Poinsett brought the poinsettia to the United States from Mexico in the 1820s. We have him to thank — as well as William Prescott, who named it; John Bartram, the first to sell a poinsettia; and a nursery family by the name of Ecke, growers on a large commercial scale.

What we might call the petals on a poinsettia are in reality a bract (a modified leaf). The bract surrounds the much smaller and insignificant real flowers (yellowish in color).

For years, the bracts were available only in a lipstick shade of red; now the bracts are pink, yellow, white, double or variegated. Plant breeders are responsible for this rainbow of colors.

Although I enjoy a poinsettia, I do not have a green thumb when it comes to keeping them happy; invariably, they start dropping their leaves as if to scold me. They are picky about their environmental and growing conditions.

The perfect poinsettia starts with the purchase of a fresh, healthy plant with nice green foliage. Pass the shopworn poinsettias by. Buying a plant as soon as it appears on the shelves allows the owner to be responsible for care and maintenance.

To keep a poinsettia perky, do not expose it to wind or cold when it is transferred from store to car and car to house. It will pout and drop a few leaves. Ideally, a plant should be wrapped to provide protection while on its journey.

Once the poinsettia is safely home, place it in indirect light, not in full direct sun. Do not put it near a heating vent or open doors or windows. Poinsettias prefer not to get too warm or too cold.

(When shopping, note where the poinsettias have been sitting; if close to a door that opens constantly, ignore them.) Poinsettias prefer a daytime temperature between 60 to 70 degrees. They are even happier to move to a cooler spot to spend the night.

Check the soil moisture every day, watering only when the soil feels dry. Make certain that the plant does not sit in water collected in the holiday wrapping. Make drainage holes in the bottom of the paper and set the plant in a saucer, or remove the wrapping and set it in a container. Always dispose of excess water. If the poinsettia dries out, the bracts will drop.

If we take care of our plant, it may stay healthy and attractive for about six weeks. (Never had that experience.)

The biggest myth I hear about poinsettias is that they are extremely poisonous if they are eaten. Not true. (The leaves taste pretty bad, though.) It is actually the sap from the leaves that can cause a rash. If a pet eats the leaves, it may develop intense stomach problems, but not death. To be on the safe side, keep children and pets away this (and other) plants.

Poinsettias do not need any fertilizer if they will only be used as holiday decorations. Should you decide to keep them for any length of time after the season is over, they will need fertilizing about once a month. An industrious person willing to follow the necessary steps can get poinsettias to re-bloom the next year, but that’s another column.

They are inexpensive; add them to the compost pile after Christmas and purchase a new one the next year, perhaps with bracts in a different shade.

Or overwinter a plant in the house and put it in the garden after the last frost. A plant from the garden will not be a good candidate to re-bloom next holiday season.

PAPERWHITES

A forced plant or bulb — brought to flower out of its normal bloom time — is a special holiday addition. A daffodil in flower on a cold December day is about as good as it gets.

I have grown a group of paperwhite narcissus (a type of daffodil) in a container filled with pebbles, and a single one in a tea cup with soil. There are also glass containers created especially to hold a narcissus.

Paperwhite blooms can have a strong smell, which may be unpleasant to some tender noses. A display of narcissus in a garden shop had one bin of bulbs (‘Inbal’) labeled to have a lighter fragrance, with bulbs in another bin (‘Ziva’) with the typical narcissus fragrance and white flowers.

Forcing a narcissus is fairly easy. Compared to a poinsettia, its care is a piece of cake.

You need water, a suitable receptacle and (clean) pebbles, rocks, marbles or soil. My sister, my paperwhite expert, gifts them every year. She uses 4-inch high plastic saucers (purchased at florist shops or big box stores). She puts a little soil in the bottom, adds the bulb, and places everything in a nice container. Share them when big fat buds appear, allowing the recipient to enjoy the bloom.

A 4-inch high saucer will hold one bulb, and a 6-inch liner will hold two. Your container should not have any drainage holes. Layer an inch or two of your medium in the bottom. Set the paperwhites with the pointed end up on your base. Put them in as tight as you can to help provide support, should the stems bend.

Add more planting medium to cover the bulbs almost to the top — but do not bury them! The tips and another inch of the bulb or so should be in plain sight.

Add only enough water to touch the base of the roots, encouraging them to grow. If water comes to the top of the bulb, it will rot.

When the bulbs are first planted, they perform better if the room temperature is a bit cooler. Remember to check the water every day, as the correct amount of water is crucial to the bulb’s growth. Avoid over-watering or allowing the bulbs to dry out.

As soon as the roots show growth, move the container to a sunny window. Paperwhites prefer cooler temperatures, which make the blooms last longer. (Rest in a cooler temperature while no one is home helps their lifespan). A very warm room will cause paperwhites to get leggy and fall over.

To have paperwhites blooming through the holiday season, plant a new batch every two weeks. Paperwhites bloom about three weeks from planting.

I have never planted spent paperwhites outdoors, so I cannot tell how successfully they will grow. There is nothing to lose by trying, however.

Paperwhites are available online and just about anywhere bulbs are sold. Inspect your bulbs before planting; they should be firm with no evidence of insects or disease.

AMARYLLIS

As the holidays approach, displays of amaryllis bulbs appear. Watching this large bulb sprout and bear the most magnificent blooms is just plain fun.

I ordered two bulbs, ‘Apple Blossom’ and ‘Christmas Gift,’ online. (The colorful paperwhites were irresistible; I chose 15). The holidays will arrive early at my house.

Start your growing process with a fat, healthy amaryllis bulb with some roots. Choose a container that is just slightly larger than the bulb, as amaryllis need a tight fit to bloom. Some amaryllis are sold with the perfectly sized container.

Since amaryllis need good drainage, use a container with a hole. Fill the container with clean potting soil that drains well; place the bulb, allowing the top third to show as soil is added.

An attractive stake placed next to the bulb at planting time is a necessity, as an amaryllis can get top-heavy when it blooms. Putting the stake next to the bulb when the amaryllis is planted will help keep the bulb from getting damaged. Water well.

Place the container in a warm sunny place when the bulb is first planted. Like most holiday plants, however, amaryllis appreciates a cooler spot once blooming has started.

Almost like the vine in “Jack and the Beanstalk,” a fat green stalk will emerge. Once the amaryllis is in flower, the leaves will pop up.

It helps to turn the container to ensure the amaryllis gets uniform light and does not start to lean. That stake really comes in handy if, despite your best efforts, it bends.

Amaryllis will appreciate some fertilizer with a very weak solution every two to three weeks.

About seven weeks or so after planting, magnificent tropical-looking blooms will appear. Time your amaryllis gift so the recipient can watch the show.

To save the amaryllis for planting outside, remove the flower stalk at the top of the bulb. After the last frost and when temperatures warm, place the bulb in the ground; partial shade is good.

Amaryllis can be coaxed into re-blooming (with some effort) the next year, but since these bulbs can be purchased for about $5, treat yourself to a new one every year.

Include care instructions for your amaryllis or any other plant gift.

CHRISTMAS CACTUS

Displays of Christmas cactus (Schlumbergera x buckeye) covered in hundreds of reddish purple blooms are very tempting.

There is also a Thanksgiving cactus (Schlumbergera truncata), with blooms in white, pink, orange, yellow and salmon.

There is also an Easter cactus or spring cactus (Rhipsalidopsis), available in many different colors.

Each looks different from the others; they should bloom right around the appropriate holiday. Someone told me she had a “holiday” cactus with red blooms passed on from her grandmother, which bloomed whenever it wanted to.

Florists often a force a cactus into bloom at a time different from when it should. The next year, should the cactus re-bloom, it will put out flowers according to its correct habit.

By the way, a Christmas cactus is not a cactus that lives in the desert. In its natural state, it lives in tropical climates, where it gets lots of rain during certain times of the year and is very dry at others.

A cactus needs well-drained soil — not top or garden soil, but a good potting mix with some soil conditioner thrown in for good measure.

Fertilizer is good for a cactus, but must be stopped about a month before the cactus blooms.

Although a Christmas cactus likes bright light, it prefers that light to be indirect. Direct sun can burn the leaves.

The cactus prefers cooler temperatures and performs better between 65 and 75 degrees. It does not appreciate a very dry room. This plant likes to be moist but not soaking, and will not appreciate sitting in a pool of water. When the soil feels dry, water. Too little water will interfere with the bloom, too much water and it can rot.

Cactus benefit from a pruning when blooming stops. Pruning will help keep a plant from becoming leggy. Pruning also allows you to share your precious plant with another gardener, or make more for yourself. Simply stick the cutting in soil.

Getting a cactus to bloom again after your first season can be frustrating. Holiday cactus require long nights and short days. They must have a dark period to re-bloom. Even street lights or indoor lighting may interfere with that process.

Give them about 14 hours of dark every day for six weeks before bloom time, and 8 to 10 hours of daylight. They also prefer to be in a cooler spot, about 50 to 55 degrees. They will be stubborn if they are in temperatures above 68 degrees, even if they get their necessary dark time.

Once the holiday blooms are gone and frost has passed, a cactus in a container can stay outside in the shade or remain inside and be treated as any other houseplant. Water, fertilize and provide the necessary rest time, and the show will begin again.

Christmas cactus is a bit demanding for a lazy gardener like me; therefore I am content just to admire them. For those of you who like a challenge, go for it!

Sherry Blanton is a member of the Calhoun County Master Gardeners Association. Contact her at sblanton@annistonstar.com.

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