Care for your living gifts

December 15, 2012

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Are you the recipient of a living gift?

Contrary to what you might think, this inquiry is not in reference to puppies or kittens. It concerns plants – specifically the oft-gifted poinsettia, paperwhite, amaryllis, cactus and cyclamen.

Poinsettias constitute 85 percent of all the potted plants sold at Christmas. As a containerized specimen, they offer variety and long-lasting beauty. The red single form is the most familiar poinsettia, but the plant is available in many colors including white, yellow, pink and marbled.

Caring for poinsettias is fairly easy for 1-2 months while they are showy. Keep plants in a cool, brightly lit area and give them regular moisture. Never expose the plants to frosty temperatures and do not let the soil dry completely. If a poinsettia wilts, most of its leaves will drop. Keep plants away from drafts. Do not fertilize.

If you want to keep your poinsettia in hopes that it will repeat its colorful show next year, prune it back by half when the bracts are no longer attractive. Repot it into a clean, well-drained container filled with loose, highly organic potting soil. Pinch off the growing tips every 3-4 weeks. Keep the soil lightly moist.

The poinsettia’s bloom is triggered by long winter nights. One of the most asked questions in horticulture is, “How do I get my poinsettia to bloom?” The answer according Southern Living is, “Move the plant into a closet to restrict light beginning Oct. 1. Keep the plant in the dark each night for about 14 hours, and then move it into bright sun each day for no more than 10 hours. Continue this procedure for 10 weeks to produce blooms by Christmas.”

AMARYLLIS

Amaryllis is a tropical bulb that is winter hardy only to South Texas. To foster its growth and rebloom, leave the plant growing in its gift pot for several months. Keep the soil lightly moist until September, and then let the soil dry. This will cause the plant to go dormant and die back to its bulb. After 6-8 weeks, repot the plant in a clean container filled with fresh, organic potting mix. Give the plant bright light and keep the soil moist, not soggy.

CHRISTMAS CACTI

Christmas cacti are native to the tropics. The plants’ flowers, which typically appear between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day, are borne at the end of arching, spineless, bright green scalloped stems. Blooms are tubular and very colorful in varying shades of white, pink, red or yellow.

These cacti may be enjoyed all year, but to produce bloom, they must have cool conditions and reduced lighting. They prefer growing in loose, organically rich potting soil with minimal moisture. Water the plant thoroughly and then allow the soil to dry before watering again. Provide moisture less often in fall and winter. Flower buds will drop prematurely if the plant is watered too much or given insufficient light.

To better assure blooms the following year, give Christmas cactus full sun each day beginning in September. At the same time, give the plant nighttime darkness – preferably 14 hours of total darkness. Buds should appear by late November.

CYCLAMEN

Cyclamen are especially popular as holiday plants in Europe. They are well liked for both their foliage and their flowers. The plant’s heart-shaped leaves have silver or gray variegation with red undersides. Cyclamen’s long-lived flowers are bright and showy in colors of red, white, pink or purple. These plants are more tolerant of cool conditions than most other holiday plants; they actually prefer 40-60 degree temperatures. Keep cyclamen in bright light and maintain an evenly moist soil. Grow cyclamen outdoors during winter, but shelter the plants if temperatures dip to freezing.

Most cyclamen drop leaves and go dormant in summer. Reduce watering once the foliage collapses and store the potted plant in a cool, dark place. By August, if you want to revive the plant for another season, check to see that the bulb (corm) has not rotted. It should be firm with no signs of mildew. Remove the corm and rub off any old roots. Repot it in fresh, well-drained soil and set the plant in bright, indirect light. Give the plant water. Once leaves develop, fertilize the plant with a mild liquid fertilizer.

PAPERWHITES

Paperwhites are also bulbous. As indoor plants, they are typically grown in shallow decorative dishes filled with gravel, but they will also perform in pots filled with loose potting soil. Keep paperwhite flowers away from drafts, and do not allow the soil to completely dry. These bulbs should produce white, heavily fragrant flowers for several weeks. They do not require fertilizer.

Resources: Southern Living, Neil Sperry, American Horticultural Society

For answers to horticulture questions, call the Texas AgriLife Extension, Hood County at 817-579-3280 or visit the website at hoodcountymastergardeners.org.

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