Gift plants add beauty and cheer to the holiday season. For some, these plants are reminders of years gone by, Christmases long ago and people no longer in our lives.
This is the second of a two-part series about the selection and care of holiday gift plants. This article focuses on poinsettias and Christmas cactuses.
The poinsettia (Euphorbia pulcherrima) is by far the most popular holiday gift plant, accounting for an estimated 85 percent of holiday gift plant sales. Starting shortly before Thanksgiving, poinsettia plants seem to come out of the woodwork, appearing not only in nurseries and florist shops but grocery stores aisles, pharmacies, home improvement stores and other retail locations.
The brightly colored poinsettia blossoms are not really flowers at all but modified leaves (called bracts) which change color when exposed to certain light conditions. The true flowers are the small cup-shaped, yellow structures that can be found in the center of the colorful bracts.
The poinsettia is native to Mexico and other parts of Central America. Poinsettias were first introduced into the United States in the late 1820s by the U.S. ambassador to Mexico (and amateur botanist), Joel Roberts Poinsett, who brought cuttings back to his greenhouse in South Carolina, where he propagated them and sold them to nurseries.
Today’s poinsettias, however, are a far cry from those brought to the U.S. by Ambassador Poinsett. Naturally a tall, rangy bush with only a few flowers, current-day poinsettias are bushier plants, supporting more blossoms that hang on the plant for longer.
They come in a wide range of colors including white, pink, red, plum, maroon and salmon. The more unusual colors such as apricot, blue, dark rose, and fuchsia are white poinsettias that have been hand-painted.
Plant selection is important when it comes to poinsettias. What you buy is the best you will have for that holiday season. It will not produce more flowers or leaves until the following season. It is at its peak when you purchase it.
Select a plant that is nicely shaped with stiff stems, dense foliage and no signs of wilting or drooping. Look for plants with unopened true flowers. If the flowers are tight, green or red-tipped, and fresh looking the colorful bracts will “hold” longer than if yellow pollen is covering the flowers.
When transporting a poinsettia, protect it from chilling winds and temperatures colder than 50 degrees. If the plant is in a plastic or mesh sleeve, remove the sleeve when it arrives at its destination since poinsettias will lose bracts due to crowding or reduced airflow.
Place the plant in bright indirect light and avoid temperature extremes. Do not place your plant next to a heater or near a drafty window or doorway.
It is a common misconception that poinsettias are highly toxic to humans. They are not, according to the California Poison Control Center (calpoison.org/news/holiday-plant-safety). They can, however, cause mild gastrointestinal symptoms if consumed, so place them out of the reach of toddlers and pets.
Over-watering is a major problem with poinsettias. Let the soil dry out between waterings. Do not let your poinsettia stand in water. Do not fertilize a poinsettia when it is in bloom.
If you want to keep your poinsettia as a houseplant after the holidays, cut it back to about 8 inches in height in early spring. Place the plant in a sunny window.
Continue watering as above and fertilize your plant with an all-purpose houseplant fertilizer every two to four weeks.
The Christmas cactus (Schlumbergera sp.) is a native of the high elevation rainforests of Brazil. It is in the same family as desert cactuses but is less tolerant to drought. In the wild, Christmas cactuses are epiphytes; they grow on other plants but make their own food.
Christmas cactuses can be long-lived. Stories abound of Christmas cactuses living more than 100 years, with the original plants being passed down from generation to generation. A blooming Christmas cactus can evoke fond memories of a beloved grandmother, aunt or other family member.
Christmas cactuses are prolific bloomers. The “leaves” of a Christmas cactus are technically not leaves but segmented photosynthetic stems. Flower buds form at the ends of these stems and sometimes between the segments.
In selecting a Christmas cactus, look for stems with an even green color. Avoid plants with dried or wrinkled segments, yellow spotting or branches that appear purple. For longer blooming, choose a plant with buds that are just opening, rather than one in full bloom.
Once in flower, a Christmas cactus usually blooms for two to four weeks; individual flowers last from five to 10 days. To extend the life of the blooms, place your Christmas cactus in bright, indirect light with temperatures on the cool side (about 55 degrees). Avoid spots with drafts, excessive heat and temperature changes.
Because Christmas cactuses can be sensitive to change, move your blooming Christmas cactus to where you want it and leave it there until it is through flowering.
Allow the top inch of soil to dry between waterings. Do not fertilize your Christmas cactus while it is in bloom.
After the flowers fade, allow your plant to “rest” by putting it in a cooler location; decrease watering. After about a month, place the plant in bright, indirect light and resume watering.
In early spring, prune your Christmas cactus by pinching back stem segments to encourage branching. Fertilize your plant every other week with a balanced houseplant fertilizer and water it when the soil surface is dry.
Whether you select one of the plants featured in this series or another of your choosing, bring some happy splashes of color into your home (or the homes of friends and family) with a holiday gift plant this Christmas season.
Jeanette Stehr-Green is a WSU-certified Clallam County Master Gardener.