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Horticulture Agent Offers Tips on Winter Holiday Plant Acquisition and Care

Traditional winter holiday plants such as poinsettia, holiday cacti, or amaryllis can add vital color to indoor décor. To extend bloom time and get the most out of these plants, it’s important to choose healthy specimens, keep them at the right temperature and water them appropriately.

The distinctive red ‘petals’ that make poinsettias so striking are really modified leaves, referred to as a ‘bract.’ “When choosing poinsettias to take home, you want to look for plants that have the small yellow true flower in the center of the bract. Many times, especially after they have been sitting out in big-box stores, the true flowers will drop off, which means those plants won’t last as long,” said Ed Olsen, an agent at Henrico unit of Virginia Cooperative Extension, as he shared tips for holiday plant care.

Poinsettias should be kept at temperatures between 65 to 70 degrees Fahrenheit. Placing near temperature extremes, such as by a cold window or in front of a warm fireplace, will shorten their lifespan. Poinsettias should be kept well-watered – but not overwatered.

“If plants are in a decorative sleeve, remove that foil or plastic liner when watering and allow to completely drain before putting back in decorative liner.  If water is allowed to pool in the liner, the plant can end up rotting,” Olsen said.

Popular winter-blooming holiday cacti include the Thanksgiving cactus (Schlumgera truncata), which has sharp, claw-shaped projects along leaf edges, and the Christmas cactus (Schlumgera bridgesti) which has more rounded or scalloped leaf projections. “The Thanksgiving and Christmas cacti flower in the same general timeframe and are often all called Christmas cacti,” Olsen said. “Both species need at least 12 hours of darkness and cool temperatures to re-bloom again next year.”

“Holiday cacti can take cooler temperatures, from 55 to 65 degrees Fahrenheit,” Olsen said. “For holiday cacti plants received as a flowering gift this winter, to make the blooms last longer, be sure to keep the plants moist while flowering.”

“Also, keep them out of drafts, and keep the plants away from the hot, dry heat if you have a fireplace or stove, as this may cause flowers to drop early. During non-blooming periods, though, the soil should dry between waterings,” Olsen said.

“When transporting any holiday plants from the store to your home, be sure they are protected from cold as even short trips in cold temperatures can cause cold damage,” he said.

“The Virginia Cooperative Extension offers guidance for care of indoor plants year-round,” Olsen noted.

For gift-giving, he suggested choosing a plant with longevity, such as a holiday cactus or an amaryllis bulb, which will last and produce flowers for multiple years.

“It’s very difficult and time-consuming to get poinsettias you have saved to flower for a second year,” said Olsen. “They need complete darkness every evening from the beginning of October to the middle of November, which means you’re moving them around multiple times a day. It’s usually not worth it.”

Although not as popular as poinsettias or holiday cacti, amaryllis and paperwhite narcissus bulbs also make great winter plants.

“The joy of amaryllis is that you can get up to three weeks out of a flower,” said Olsen. “You can give amaryllis as a holiday gift even if the recipient doesn’t have time for it to bloom for Christmas. It’s still a great gift because they can enjoy the bloom later in January.”

For more information on forcing bulbs indoors — or getting them to bloom out of season — see the Virginia Cooperative Extension publication “Forcing Bulbs for Indoor Bloom.”

“An amaryllis bulb takes four to six weeks, but paperwhites can be forced in as little as three weeks,” Olsen said.

About Olsen
Working with both residents and landscape and nursery industry professionals in Henrico County, Virginia, Ed Olsen focuses on both consumer and commercial horticulture interests. Ed is also responsible for the Henrico Extension Master Gardener volunteer program. In addition, he provides support to the traditional agriculture producers in Henrico County.

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