By SUSAN BENZSCHAWEL, Winona County Master Gardener intern
For plant lovers, decking the halls for the season means holiday plants take center stage. From the traditional poinsettia and beloved holiday cactus to some new favorites, with a little TLC these plants can be the gift that keeps on giving right into the new year. Poinsettias are one of the most popular holiday plants. This plant from the Euphorbia family is native to Mexico. Often the vibrant bracts or modified leaves are mistaken as the plant’s flowers; however, the true flowers are the small yellow clusters you see in the middle of the bracts. While red is the most typical color, you can find poinsettias in a wide range of other colors, including white, pink and many other hues. With a bit of creativity using paints and dyes, shades of blue and purple also appear at holiday time.
The University of Minnesota Extension website offers the following advice about poinsettias. The plant is not harmful to people or pets, but it is still best to take precautions. The milky white sap can irritate the skin and cause digestive issues if eaten. Poinsettias like bright indirect light, with temperatures of 65-70 degrees F. Keep this plant, and most houseplants, away from direct heat sources and away from areas that will get a cold draft in the winter. One of the best things you can do for your poinsettia when first brought home is to remove the decorative foil it usually
comes wrapped in. The plant needs to have proper drainage to avoid excess water that can lead to root rot. Keep the soil consistently moist by watering whenever the soil surface feels dry to the touch. A monthly dose of an all-purpose fertilizer at half strength will promote new growth. If the plant gets leggy, simply trim it back. Visit U of MN Extension at tinyurl.com/mktddzr6 for more tips on summer care and how to help your poinsettia rebloom the following year.
Holiday cacti, another seasonal favorite, have been known to live for decades. Our family has one that has been passed down for three generations. The timing of the blooms depends on the species. What’s become known as the Thanksgiving cactus (S. truncata) blooms mid-November through December and has stems with pointed projections. The Christmas cactus (S. bridgesii) has more rounded or scalloped stems and blooms in December to early February. Like poinsettias, the holiday cacti require cooler nights and shorter hours of daylight to trigger blooms. Too much artificial light at night may cause a lack of blooms, so tuck it away in a dark corner at night for a month to help set the buds. Once it starts to flower, it will do well with temperatures around 70 degrees F and bright indirect light. How often to water the cactus will depend on the soil type. Keep the plant well drained to avoid it getting soggy, as root rot can occur easily, but don’t let it completely dry out. A monthly dose of household plant fertilizer at half strength can be beneficial. For more insights into the care of your holiday cactus, visit University of Wisconsin Extension at hort.extension.wisc.edu/articles/holiday-cactus/.
A few other holiday favorites are the amaryllis, Norfolk pine, and more recently the rosemary Christmas tree. The blooms of the amaryllis can be spectacular. A word of caution: This plant is considered toxic if ingested, so keep it safely away from children and pets and handle it with care. Again, keep the soil moist with good drainage. Turning the plant keeps it from leaning too far into the light. If you fertilize your plant, use a half dose of fertilizer with a higher concentration of phosphorus. Remove faded blooms to help reserve energy in the bulb. The Norfolk pine makes a wonderful alternative to a small Christmas tree, but treat it gently if adding decorations. Despite their pine tree appearance, this tropical plant is not cold hardy, and it likes a brightly-lit location. The Norfolk pine also likes more humid air, which can be a problem in our northern climate. It can be beneficial to place it near other plants to create a more humid microclimate or place the plant on a tray with pebbles and a bit of water. The pot should drain easily when watered. Rotate the plant weekly to help it stay strong and upright. (See more information at tinyurl.com/2tdfmbcy.)
Rosemary Christmas trees are gaining in popularity. They are an ideal gift for the plant lover who also enjoys cooking. A rosemary tree is a topiary created by pruning a rosemary plant into a shape. It will require additional pruning to keep this shape. A word of caution when buying this plant; make sure it is healthy and not dried out. Because rosemary doesn’t wilt like most plants when it needs water, take care to check the soil to keep it watered properly. It may require repotting or need to be moved outdoors to your garden in the spring. Happy Holidays, everyone!