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Between the Rows

Between the Rows: Think before buying plant gifts

Plants, one way or another, play a big part in our Christmas festivities and gift giving. I can’t think of any other holiday when plants are so important. We decorate our houses with evergreen wreaths and deck our halls with holly. Or at least with laurel ropes, evergreen boughs and swags and forced bulbs on the festive table.

We also give plants as gifts and may also receive a potted plant. The question is: how can we choose a gift plant or care for a plant we never imagined taking up residence on our windowsill? The answer is the same as it is for a plant in the garden. We have to know what the plant needs in terms of light, water and heat and where in the house those needs will be met most easily.

When choosing a gift plant, consider the home of the recipient. Is the house or apartment very warm or cool? In my house the downstairs is quite warm in winter because we have a woodstove and solar gain. Cooler at night, of course. The upstairs bedroom is cool during the day and much cooler at night. How bright or sunny is the house? Different plants have different light requirements from tolerant of low light, to bright but not sunny, to long hours of sun.

Choose your plants with those conditions in mind. The poinsettia is a tropical plant that requires four hours of sun, with daytime temperatures between 65 and 70 degrees, and nighttime temperatures 10 degrees cooler. This iconic Christmas flower has the advantage of coming in a range of colors and having a long period of bloom. The “flowers” are actually bracts that will easily give a month of color. People do carry poinsettias through their dormant period to bloom another year, but most consider the poinsettia a living bouquet, and toss it without a pang when it begins to shed bracts and foliage.

A glamorous Christmas plant is the amaryllis or Hippeastrum. White Flower Farm offers a huge selection of large amaryllis bulbs, but you can buy these at local garden shops. They come in a full range of colors from pale white to rich red, and even candy-striped. They often come potted up ready to wake up and start growing once they are watered and placed in a bright, warm (70-80 degree) room. They need to be watered when the top inch of soil is dry.

After amaryllis bloom, they can be carried over by cutting off the flower stalks and putting the plant in a bright cool 50 degree room. Leave the foliage to gather strength for another bloom period, just as you leave daffodil foliage. When the weather is warm the potted plant can be put outside. In the fall, cut back the foliage and store the bulb, without watering, in a cool dark space like a basement for at least eight weeks. Then the bulb can be repotted and brought into a bright room. When growth begins you water the bulb and carry on as before.

Yes, amaryllis can be carried over, or as with any gift plant, you can chuck it, or make it a gift to a friend who is a patient gardener.

Two plants that need very little care are the Thanksgiving (Schlumbergera truncata) and Christmas cactus (S. bridgesii). These two succulents are very similar, but the stem segments of S. truncata have points rather than the scalloped stem segments of the Christmas cactus. Both are available is shades pale and bright.

Christmas cactus bought now will probably be in bud or bloom that will last for a month or more. It is a cactus but needs bright light, not sun. While it does need to be watered, less harm is done by underwatering, than by overwatering. This is true of most houseplants. Christmas cactus stems will begin to soften or shrivel slightly if the plant has been underwatered, and will recover quickly when watering is resumed.

Once they have bloomed these plants can live in a sunny room, and live outside in light shade in the summer. They can be given a little fertilizer for flowering plants. Buds will set in the fall when nighttime temperatures dip to 55 degrees. Christmas cactus is so easy to maintain that it can be handed down from mother to daughter.

One of my favorite holiday plants is the cyclamen. Cyclamen is a cool weather plant so it loves my cool rooms. This is not a plant for an overheated apartment! I bring my cyclamen into the social area for brief celebratory occasions. The blossoms, white or pink, dance like butterflies above the heart shaped foliage. Water carefully around the edges of the pot so the corm does not become waterlogged and rot. Fertilize every two or three weeks with a soluble fertilizer for blooming plants.

The biggest challenge in carrying a cyclamen plant over is keeping it cool enough. When the bloom period is over the plant goes into dormancy. The foliage will dry and fall off. Repot the corm in a slightly larger pot, and put it outside for the summer in a shady spot. Do not overwater. By the end of the summer new growth should have started. Fertilization can resume when buds are set. It is hard to say exactly when a carried over cyclamen will bloom, but if it comes out of dormancy you should be assured of another bloom season. Just remember. Keep it cool.

Of course there are many other plants available for gift giving, but any of them will give pleasure throughout the holiday season and beyond if you keep their needs in mind when making a choice.

Pat Leuchtman, who is The Recorder’s garden columnist, has been writing and gardening in Heath at End of the Road Farm since 1980. Readers can leave comments at her Web site: www.commonweeder.com.

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