Tidewater Gardening - January 2014

Care of Holiday Gift Plants


K. Marc Teffeau

If you were given or purchased one of the many varieties of Christmas gift plants, you are probably wondering how to take care of it. With a knowledge of proper care, you can make sure that most of these plants will be around for next Christmas. Let’s talk first about what I would not keep after the holidays.
Based on my personal experience, the one Christmas plant that I would not try to keep around would be the poinsettia. I do not think that trying to carry over this plant is worth the effort. I would also add the Christmas pepper, Capsicum annuum, and the Jerusalem cherry, Solanum pseudocapsicum, to the list. The attractive part of these plants is their brightly colored fruit. Keep the plants in full sunlight and keep the soil moist. Cool temperatures will help prolong the life of the fruit. After the fruit drops, discard the plants. New growth is ungainly, and they will not flower again. The fruit is poisonous, so keep it out of the reach of children and pets.
Now let’s talk about the ones that I do think are worth keeping. Tops on the list would be the Thanksgiving and Christmas cacti. These succulents are easy to take care of if you know their cultural requirements. While Thanksgiving and Christmas cacti are similar in appearance, there are differences. The flattened stem segments (phylloclades) on the Thanksgiving cactus possess two to four saw-toothed projections. Thanksgiving cacti typically bloom in November or December. Christmas cactus have rounded margins. Christmas cacti typically bloom in December or January.
While they differ in appearance and bloom time, the cultural requirements for Christmas and Thanksgiving cacti are the same. These succulents prefer bright, indirect light and temperatures of 60 to 70°. In spring and summer (when plants are actively growing) water plants about once every seven days and fertilize every two to four weeks with a diluted fertilizer solution.
In fall and winter, keep plants a bit on the dry side. A thorough watering every seven to ten days is usually sufficient.
Thanksgiving and Christmas cacti are short-day plants. They will not bloom properly if exposed to artificial light at night. In late summer/early fall, place plants in a cool (60 to 65°) location that receives bright light during the day, but no artificial light at night. An unused bedroom or basement may have the proper environmental conditions.
Continue to give these plants good, consistent care during flower bud development. Moving plants from one location to another, excessive watering or other marked changes to their care during flower bud development may cause the buds to drop off. The Christmas cactus can be moved and displayed in another room when the first flowers begin to open. When given proper care and a favorable environment, Thanksgiving and Christmas cacti are long-lived and are often passed from one generation to the next.
A popular flowering bulb for Christmas is the Amaryllis (a.k.a. Hippeastrum). The bloom is a spectacular flower, six inches across with two to four blossoms on tall sturdy stems. Each flower can last two weeks, and sometimes longer. Blossom colors can range from red, yellow, pink and white. The amaryllis commonly sold is correctly called Hippeastrum. Hippeastrum is native to South America; the true Amaryllis is from South Africa and is not commonly sold here. Both are in the plant family, Amaryllidaceae.
You were probably given the hippeastrum in a dormant state, ready to grow in a gift box kit complete with peat moss, or a glass vase with attractive stone in the bottom. All you needed to do was place it in a sunny location and keep it watered according to the instructions on the package, and in about three weeks enjoy the gorgeous blossoms that emerged.
When properly cared for, these flower bulbs may live for several years. Just like the bulbs grown in your garden outdoors, these tropical bulbs have a rest period when the leaves will dry up and are shed.
Hippeastrums require bright light during the active growth period. If the light is too weak, it will have floppy leaves that will weaken the bulb and reduce or stop its ability to bloom the following year. Growing in bright sunlight is the single most important factor for repeat bloom year after year.
After the active growth period is over, reduce the frequency of watering. This will prompt dormancy to begin and the leaves will turn yellow and wither. After the leaves have completely died, trim them off and keep the bulb completely dry. Light is not required while the bulb is in dormancy. After a couple of months of dormancy, new growth that is a new flower bud, will emerge.
To help keep the bulb strong and vigorous, fertilization is recommended after flowering. Select a fertilizer labeled for houseplants and follow the instructions.
A healthy and vigorously growing bulb will produce young bulbs around the base (where the roots originate from the bulb). These can be detached and planted to grow new plants. They will require a few years to reach minimum flowering size of 3 to 4 inches.
Sold as a houseplant “Christmas tree,” the Norfolk Island pine has gained popularity in the past few years. During the holiday season, many individuals turn their plants into living Christmas trees by decorating them with miniature lights, ribbons and ornaments.
The Norfolk Island pine thrives indoors when given good, consistent care. Place the pine in a brightly lit location near an east, west or south window. Rotate the plant weekly to prevent it from growing toward the light and becoming lopsided.
Thoroughly water the Norfolk Island pine when the soil surface becomes dry to the touch. Discard the excess water that drains out the bottom of the pot.
From spring to early fall, fertilize the plant with a diluted fertilizer solution every two to four weeks. A temperature of 60 to 75° is suitable. Winter is often a difficult time because of low relative humidity levels in most homes. Raise the humidity level around the Norfolk Island pine with a humidifier, or place the plant on a tray or saucer containing pebbles and water. Make sure the water level does not reach the bottom of the pot. Low relative humidity levels, insufficient light or excessively dry soil conditions may induce browning of branch tips and lead to the loss of the lower branches.
If you are up to a challenge, you might try to keep the florist’s cyclamen, Cyclamen persicum, going after the holidays. These plants are distinguished for their compact foliage and abundant blooms. The flowers, borne at a level above the leaves, are white or shades and tints of red. The plants are difficult to maintain in most homes. Cyclamen requires a night temperature of 50°, and day temperatures of 60 to 65° in full sunlight. The leaves turn yellow quickly and flower buds die if the temperature is too high or light intensity too low. Inadequate moisture also produces adverse effects.
If you want to keep the plant after flowering, withhold water to induce dormancy, and store the pot in a cool locations until the following June. Repot the corm in a sterilized soil mixture of one part peat moss, one part soil, and two parts coarse sand. Leave the upper half of the corm exposed to prevent rotting.
When the corm re-sprouts, fertilize twice a month with a water-soluble houseplant fertilizer at a 1:2:1 ratio. Keep the plant in indirect bright light until mid-September, then expose it to full sunlight at low temperatures for mid-winter flowering.
The common kalanchoe, available during the Christmas season, is Kalanchoe blossfeldiana. These plants are small, compact, and bear red, orange and yellow flowers in clusters above the foliage. The plants are usually available throughout the winter. For extended bloom, they require cool temperatures, full sunlight and constantly moist soil.
After flowering, the plants can be retained for their foliage if they receive direct sunlight; ungainly new growth develops if they receive too little light. Rebloom is unreliable without controlled day length. For Christmas bloom, put the plants in complete darkness from 6 p.m. to 7 a.m. for 30 days, beginning September 1. After this treatment, plants will develop buds under normal conditions.
While on the subject of house plants, here are a couple of care suggestions to keep them healthy. Remember not to do a lot of fertilizing during the winter. They do not need it. Excessive fertilizing can result in a salt buildup in the soil and may cause root problems. If you are growing plants in clay pots, excessive salts will show up as a white deposit on the outside of the clay pot.
Also, watch your watering. Depending on where your plant is located in the house, it may require more of less water. If the plant in question is growing in a cool, north-facing room, it will need less water than one that is in the living room, den or family room where a woodstove or other heat source is located.
If the leaves of your houseplant are turning yellow and dropping from the bottom toward the top, the plant may be suffering from over watering. Sometimes this condition is the result of a plant being in a pot that is too large. In this case, excess soil around the roots holds too much water, leading to low oxygen levels and root rot. To avoid this problem, never put a plant in a pot that is more than 1 to 2 inches wider than the root ball.
Wilting can be caused by too much water, too little water or over fertilization. Leaves with brown edges may be a sign of chronic under watering or periodic episodes of severe drying out.
For homeowners who seem to have a black thumb when it comes to house plants, here are two that you might try to grow. The Chinese Evergreen (Aglaonema) and the Snake Plant (Sanseviera), a.k.a. mother-in-law tongue. They are very tolerant of neglect and survive for long periods of time with no water. In addition, they have few pest or disease problems, thrive in low light, and can withstand hot or cool indoor temperatures.
Happy Gardening!

Marc Teffeau retired as the Director of Research and Regulatory Affairs at the American Nursery and Landscape Association in Washington, D.C. and he now lives in Georgia with his wife, Linda.