Holiday Houseplants


Charmeur amaryllis (Hippeastrum 'Charmeur')

Holiday houseplants are typically in postcard-perfect form when they come into our homes.

Poinsettias are plumped out in traditional red. Amaryllis bear giant, striped trumpets that blare “Look at me!” And Christmas cactus and cyclamen flash impossibly iridescent flowers in shades of red, pink and white.

But after New Year’s, those beauties start becoming bedraggled. Eventually we’re faced with whether to keep them or toss them.

Before you make that decision, it’s useful to know what kind of effort is required to sustain the plants.

It’s also important to realize that despite your most valiant attempts, some holiday houseplants simply will not return to their former stunning selves unless you replicate the extraordinary steps that commercial growers take, which include the use of greenhouses, grow lights, shade cloth and tight control over temperatures at various times during the plants’ life cycles.

That said, here’s what to expect.

Poinsettia (Euphorbia pulcherrima)

Poinsettia (Euphorbia pulcherrima)

Between 35 and 40 million of these vibrant shrubs are sold in the United States during the holidays, and the lion’s share are sure to be discarded after Christmas.

For most of the country, that’s probably the right call, since poinsettias are native to southern Mexico and detest cold weather.

However, here on the Central Coast, they will grow outdoors if you provide them with sun and moist, fast-draining soil, and protect them from wind and freezing temperatures. Just don’t expect yours to bloom at Christmas. Longer nights trigger the coloring, and commercial growers manipulate the light in greenhouses. Left to nature, yours may not show color until January. Planted within the glow of a porch light or street light, it might not color up much at all.

In addition, your compact indoor plant is likely to become leggy outdoors, easily reaching 6 to 10 feet tall.

If you are determined to keep your poinsettia compact and force it to rebloom in December, don’t plant it in the ground.

Instead, keep it in a pot and place it outdoors in a sunny spot. After the leaves drop, cut back the stems to 6 inches tall, leaving at least two joints on each stem. Water when the top few inches of soil dry out, and pinch back new growth every few weeks to encourage fullness.

The special light regimen begins in mid September to early October. Every night for eight to 10 weeks, move the pot into a dark closet for 14 hours, say from 6 p.m. to 8 a.m. Every morning, move it into sunlight for the day. That daily cycle of 14 hours of darkness, followed by 10 hours of sunshine, should produce the most vivid holiday color.

Amaryllis (Hippeastrum)

Clown amaryllis (Hippeastrum 'Clown') bears a full circle of flowers.

These impressive, giant bulbs, bearing large, showy trumpets, are an increasingly popular Christmas item. But once again, growers have manipulated their bloom time.

In the garden, amaryllis bloom in the spring, right before or just as their broad, strappy leaves emerge. Having just bloomed over the holidays, yours is not likely to replay the show this spring. Instead, you’ll have to wait about 15 months for the next round of spectacular, candy cane-striped flowers.

After the new year, set your amaryllis outside in the sun and water it occasionally. Make sure the container has drain holes. If not, make some, or transplant the bulb to a porous clay pot filled with fast-draining cactus mix. The pot should be on the small side, with just an inch or two of space between the side of the pot and the rough, papery edges of the amaryllis bulb. Plant the bulb high, with up to half of its top exposed.

With filtered sunlight and occasional water, agapanthus-like leaves should emerge in spring. When the leaves begin to yellow, stop watering and let the bulb and foliage dry out over summer. Flower buds form, deep within, during this rest period. New, succulent flower stalks should then rise and bloom the following spring.

Christmas Cactus (Schlumbergera)

Christmas Cactus (Schlumbergera)

These sparkly plants share poinsettias’ need for controlled light. But they take only six to eight weeks of going dark for 12 to 14 hours, rather than eight to 10 weeks for a solid 14 hours. Again, that includes blocking any exterior, night-time lighting.

Fortunately, the shorter time frame means that even without any help, your Christmas cactus should bloom during the holidays. But if you still insist on controlling the light to ensure flowers at a particular time, it’s best to leave the plants outdoors and cover them with paper bags each night. Otherwise, they might balk at the twice daily moves and shed their buds in protest.

Whatever you choose to do, after Christmas, move your Christmas cactus outdoors to rest in a spot with bright, indirect sunlight. Mine is packed into a hanging basket. I hang it on a lower branch of a purple-leaf plum tree. The tree is bare over winter, when sun protection isn’t all that important. Then it leafs out to provide filtered shade during spring, summer and fall.

Christmas cactus truly are members of the cactus family, and are at their best in containers with extremely fast-draining soil. Hanging baskets are especially effective, because as the cactus gains size, its jointed arms can gracefully cascade over the sides.

Water yours occasionally, letting the top inch of soil go dry between waterings. Don’t let the fleshy leaves shrivel up.

Cyclamen (Cyclamen persicum)

SilverHeart cyclamen

These perky little clumping plants, with heart-shaped leaves and flower petals shaped like flames, are being increasingly marketed as holiday houseplants.

However, they prefer temperatures much cooler than we usually keep our houses, and are at their best indoors next to the draftiest, coolest window possible.

After the holidays, move your cyclamen outdoors to a spot that offers the same filtered shade that Christmas cactus appreciate. But rather than transplanting your cyclamen to hanging baskets, leave the plants in their small pots or put them in the ground, provided you have excellent drainage.

Cyclamen grow from tubers, the tops of which should sit slightly higher than the surrounding soil. They are native to the eastern Mediterranean region, which shares our climate of warm, dry summers and cool, wet winters. The tubers go dormant over summer and need dry soil during their rest. New leaves will begin to appear in fall, followed by flower buds that will bloom in winter and spring.

Indoor Care

Most holiday houseplants prefer bright, indirect light indoors, and cool temperatures. Keep them away from south-facing windows and heater vents.

Watering can be tricky. In cooler rooms out of direct sunlight, the soil may stay damp for a week. But in a bright spot or within range of a heater, they may need water almost daily.

Also, because holiday houseplants tend to spill over the edges of their containers, it can be difficult to poke the soil to see if it’s dry. Instead, use the lift test — water your plant thoroughly, then lift it to see how heavy it feels when the soil is saturated. Check it every few days, and when it feels considerably lighter, it’s time to water again.

When you do water, stop when you see water beginning to trickle into the pot saucer. Empty the saucer so that the bottom of the plant doesn’t sit in water.

Seeds of Wisdom

If you’re still hunting for a quick gift, consider a poinsettia, amaryllis, Christmas cactus or cyclamen. Given the proper conditions and care, all should live long after the holidays, out in the garden.

Visit Joan’s website at www.SantaBarbaraGardens.com, or post a comment by clicking on “Leave a Comment” back up at the top.

A once glorious amaryllis.

Are any of your holiday houseplants still in decent shape?

My fancy, pink-splattered poinsettia is hitting three months and going strong.

But the spectacular, candy cane-striped trumpet flowers of my amaryllis (actually a Hippeastrum hybrid) are a distant memory. It may seem a little warped to display a photo of the dried remains. But that’s an inevitable sight — unless I lose patience and toss the lemon-sized bulb into the compost.

But at $10 to $25 a pop, my inclination is to try to keep it going.

Here’s the Drill

In the garden, amaryllis bloom in the spring, right before or just as their broad, strappy leaves emerge. If yours bloomed this past Christmas, it’s not likely to produce more flowers this spring. The bulbs can take more than a year to acclimate.

In the meantime, they’re finicky about watering, drainage and keeping their necks dry. Given my heavy soil, planting them in the ground isn’t an option. Instead, they’re best planted in a fast-draining cactus mix in a small, simple red clay pot, with just an inch or two between the rough, papery edges of the bulb and the side of the pot. The bulbs should also be high, with up to half of their tops exposed to the world.

With filtered sunlight and occasional water, agapanthus-like leaves should emerge in spring. When the leaves begin to yellow, I’ll stop watering and let the bulbs dry out over summer. Flower buds should be forming, deep within, during this rest period. New, succulent flower stalks should then — hopefully — rise and bloom the following spring.

Still beautiful!

What About Poinsettias?

Somehow, poinsettias seem to be easier to dump after Christmas. Maybe because they’re less exotic, don’t cost as much and have already held strong indoors for several months before tiring.

But poinsettias are native to Mexico and will grow well outdoors on the Central Coast.

However, long nights are what triggers their coloring, so they’re not likely to turn red until after Christmas. They also tend to stretch outdoors, growing leggier by the year. I’ve seen the yellow-leaf types reach 10 feet tall in older neighborhoods.

Easy in the Garden

If you’d like to plant your poinsettias outdoors, wait until spring.

In the meantime, put your plants — still in their pots — in a protected patio or garage. After the leaves fall off, cut down the stems to a few inches tall. Go easy on the water.

When temperatures begin to warm up, plant your plants in a sunny spot that’s out of the wind, protected from frost, has good to excellent drainage and offers plenty of head room. While fresh pot plants may only be a foot or two tall, most poinsettias in the garden revert to head-high or higher, unless you pinch back the stems on a regular basis.

Mulch your plants and water occasionally. Some folks say it’s not necessary to fertilize outdoor poinsettias. Others recommend applying a high-nitrogen fertilizer twice a month once the leaves begin to turn red.

Left to their own devices, poinsettias can look pretty scraggly for the first few feet out of the ground. If you don’t pinch back every few weeks during the growing season, plant something in front to hide their ankles and knees.

The “bloom” is a result of the colored bracts, or modified leaves, responding to long nights. Poinsettias need about 12 hours of darkness to trigger the change in color. The leaves then take 2 to 3 months to mature, depending on the variety, temperature and intensity of light.

If your poinsettias are planted near an all-night patio light or streetlight, they may not bloom until well into the new year. Commercial growers manipulate the light to create plants ready to sell from Thanksgiving through Christmas.

A Lot More Trouble

If you’re dead-set on getting a poinsettia to rebloom in December, keep it in its pot so that you can manipulate its daylight hours.

After the leaves drop, cut back the stems to 6 inches high. Make sure each stem has at least two joints. Set the plant outdoors in a sunny location. Water whenever the top few inches of soil dry out, and pinch back new growth every few weeks to encourage fullness.

The real fun begins in October.

Place the pot in a pitch-black closet every night for 14 hours, say from 5 p.m. to 7 a.m. Then put it in sunshine during the day, for 10 hours.

I’ve never had the discipline to follow through. But maintaining the regimen for eight to 10 weeks is said to result in a colorful plant for Christmas.

Visit Joan’s website at www.SantaBarbaraGardens.com, or post a comment by clicking on “Leave a Comment” back up at the top.