Caring for Christmas plants

By Danny Cain
Posted 11/18/18

It happens every year around Thanksgiving, and no, I’m not talking simply about eating too much turkey and gravy but rather the planning for the upcoming Christmas holidays. Christmas is a holiday …

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Caring for Christmas plants


It happens every year around Thanksgiving, and no, I’m not talking simply about eating too much turkey and gravy but rather the planning for the upcoming Christmas holidays. Christmas is a holiday so grand in proportion that it takes from the weekend following Thanksgiving all the way until December 25 to celebrate.  It is such a grand occasion that even we die-hard Auburn fans will break down and wear the traditional Christmas red and white. 

One thing that truly marks the holiday season in my mind is the plants that we use to decorate our homes during the holiday season. Perhaps no one single thing represents the Christmas holiday season as does the poinsettia. Actually poinsettias belong to a genus of plants called euphorbia that contains more than 1,500 individual plants.  Included in these are many spurges and plants that we actually consider to be nothing more than weeds.  Poinsettias were virtually unheard of only a few decades ago; however, today they are the single most popular and widely sold potted flowering plant in the United States.  There are many choices in poinsettia colors including my personal favorite, the deep “Christmas” red, pink, white, and even speckled or peppermint colors as I call them.  Most people mistake the colorful bracts, which are actually specialized leaves, for flowers.  Poinsettias do indeed bloom, but their blooms are very tiny green or yellow flowers located in the middle of the colorful bracts.

Poinsettias are currently in stock in stores, nurseries, and garden shops.  Choose a poinsettia with colorful healthy bracts and flower structures that are either closed or just beginning to open.  Poinsettias will generally start to decline in appearance after the flowers bloom and drop off.  The plant should be able to stand on its own with no stakes or ties, and the foliage should be deep green with no signs of disease or insect damage.  When you leave the store, make sure you ask for a sleeve to protect the plant from wind, rain, or frigid temperatures.  Poinsettias are tropical, and blasts of cold air even as high as 50 degrees can cause them to shed leaves.  Never buy a poinsettia which has had prolonged storage in a sleeve or that looks wilted even when wet.  This can be a condition called epinasty and the poinsettia will never fully recover.

Poinsettias thrive in bright but indirect sunlight.  Put the plant next to a sunny window, but remember that too much direct light can cause the bracts to fade.  Too little light will cause the poinsettia to shed valuable leaves.  They absolutely cannot tolerate moisture extremes.  If the potting mixture dries out, the plant will drop leaves and bracts; however, if the potting mixture stays too wet or if water stands in the pot, your poinsettia will almost surely get root rot and will decline very rapidly.

Fertilizer should not be a concern until after Christmas.  After Christmas, use a water-soluble fertilizer such as a 20-20-20 or 15-30-15 at a rate of ¼ teaspoon per gallon of water once per month.  Temperature will also be very important.  Don’t put your poinsettia in drafty locations either hot or cold a constant 70 degrees or slightly lower will be fine.  Placing poinsettias around heat vents and outside doorways should definitely be avoided.

Poinsettias are actually perennials, so they can live for many years.  Most people treat them as annuals; however, because older poinsettias or poinsettias that re-bloom are usually less attractive with lower quality bracts and flowers.  Even though they are not quite as attractive, it is fun to grow your poinsettia from one Christmas till the next (I have one at home that will soon see its fourth Christmas).  Remember that the red colored foliage on the poinsettia is just that….foliage (or more precisely “bracts”) and not actual blooms.  Mine still puts on a few red colored bracts each year.

Another group of holiday plants that I am particularly fond of are the holiday cacti.  Thanksgiving cactus is recognized by its deep green glossy foliage, its two prominent teeth or claws at the tip, and the distinctive scarlet red bloom. Thanksgiving cactus can usually be depended on to bloom in October or November around Thanksgiving (mine are in bloom right now just in time).  Christmas cactus has rounded leaves with a slightly lighter green color foliage.  Christmas cactus blooms carmine red with just a hint of a purple tinge to the bloom’s center.

Both holiday cacti require a well-drained potting media.  You can make your own by mixing three parts compost, one part peat moss, and two parts pure sand or you can do what I do and purchase pre-mixed cacti potting media from your local garden center.

They will require warm temperatures ( anywhere from 62 degrees to 80 degrees should work fine) and they prefer filtered light areas as opposed to direct sunlight.  Do not overwater your holiday cactus as they are prone to root rot.  Drain off any excess water and allow the potting media to dry before rewatering them.  Overwatering (or underwatering) and drastic changes in temperature can cause them to shed their bloom buds.

After they flower, your holiday cacti will start to put on new growth which will form next year’s bloom buds.  Provide them with a little water soluble fertilizer with your watering while they are putting on their new growth.  You can keep them inside your house or even move them outside next spring after the last frost (they are not cold weather tolerant).  Starting about late next August begin to diminish the amount of water you give them to allow them to “harden off” prior to moving them inside.

The best thing about the holiday cacti is that they are so easily propagated at most any time of the year.  Simply remove the last couple joints from the stem, pot them out in a container of well-drained potting media, and keep them watered.  They will very dependably root and you will have a new plant to enjoy or share with a neighbor.


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