toss that poinsettia (& other gift-plant tips)

schlumbergeraTHROW THE POINSETTIA OUT and buy a Christmas cactus. That about wraps up holiday gift-plant Tip Number 1, in answer to the most popular midwinter plant question of all: “How do I care for my poinsettia and make it rebloom?”

Tip Number 2: CHRISTMAS CACTUS is another story altogether. I grew one plant for more than 20 years, a family hand-me-down, that only perished after literally falling apart because it got so big and brittle and I had to move it, sadly, which did it in. The plant’s requirements are simple: Though its name says “cactus,” this isn’t some desert creature inclined toward basking in blazing sun, but rather a tropical forest native and an epiphyte at that (a plant that in its native habitat doesn’t grow in soil at all but nested in trees). Bright indirect light is fine; full sun will burn its tissue, which sometimes reddens up first, as if slightly sunburned, like it’s trying to warn you you’re getting close to the danger zone.

No drafty spots for Schlumbergera up against a winter window, nor any radiators (what plant really likes either condition?). It can withstand temperatures in the 40s, if need be, but not the violent blasts of hot and cold, hot and cold.

As with many plants, it’s spare the rod and spoil the child with Schlumbergera; a little discipline works wonders (amaryllis and Clivia are two others that like tough love). I let the Christmas cactus go dry in late summer for a month or so around August, then start watering again sparingly in mid-September, when it also appreciates one or both of two additional triggers–14 hours of nightly darkness and/or cooler temperatures–to set the best blooms.  Even a month of covering the plant at night with a black plastic bag will do; some experts recommend eight weeks. The lazy-person’s method (mine) of drying it off in August and giving it a cooler spot thereafter, often forgetting the bag, seems to work just fine. In spring and summer, it’s the usual houseplant routine: feed and water regularly.

One more tip: Don’t jostle the Christmas cactus around, especially not during bud-setting time, nor expect it to manage in the super-low humidity of our winter interiors. Both are anathema to prolific blooming (and both can also cause the plant to drop those fleshy leaves, not just flower buds). You may have learned this the hard way when you bought a Christmas cactus: Once home, it sulked, and promptly dropped its flowers or buds. A tray of pebbles and water for it to stand on or some other conscious humidity-enhancer is appreciated by Schlumbergera.

Tip Number 3: KALANCHOE naturally responds to shorter daylength that we experience around October onward, so it makes a pretty willing year-end bloomer even without much special help.  Its succulent foliage is giving you a hint that it doesn’t want to be sodden, ever: Allow to dry between waterings, and grow in a well-drained potting mix. Kalanchoe will sulk in low light, and is a sun-lover, so the brightest spot you can offer will be appreciated.

Deadhead spent flowers and pot the plant up a pot size as spring approaches, and summer it outdoors where possible. One detail: The plant wants about 12 weeks of nights that are longer than the days to come into bloom, so if you are determined to have it color up for Christmas, perhaps fake a few weeks of shorter daylength in mid-September onward, using the black plastic bag method above. Otherwise just be content to perhaps have your show in January (particularly if your house is on the very warm side, which can conspire to cause delay of bloom a bit as well).

Tip Number 4: FLORIST’S CYCLAMEN. My sister, Marion, a master of contrarian horticulture who stashes thing in radiator covers and all employs kind of other tactics “that cannot work” but do, grew one gift cyclamen for years and years, in the master bathroom of her house. Until then, I’d always had these on the “throw it out” list, unlike hardy cyclamen for the garden that one hopes to coax into perennial happiness. Actually, I still say throw it out, but not right away. Enjoy the foliage after the blooms are spent by keeping it cool and moist, not soggy. When the leaves fade, the tuberous thing wants to rest; let it. Withhold water. If there are no signs of mites or rot, you can water again to wake it back up like Marion does in that cool, bright bathroom of hers.

Tip Number 5: PAPERWHITES. Garbage; into the garbage, as they won’t bloom again (except in warm zones, in the ground, though they may skip a year after indoor forcing before doing so). If you really want to know more, or wish to force some now, try this recent post.

Hippeastrum 'Garden Supreme'

Tip Number 6: AMARYLLIS. I rest my bulbs for two months or so each fall, starting when cooler weather prompts me to bring them back indoors. From September to November or thereabouts, they sit on their sides, pots and all, in a little-used closet with almost no light and absolutely no water.  Don’t expect to win these bulbs over to your schedule, at least not the first year after you adopt them, even with strict timetables like mine.

One of my favorite recent varieties, ‘Supreme Garden’ (shown), is reminding me of that fact this winter. Try as I might to wake it up completely, forget it. It’s had three green leaves since November, which appeared right there in dark storage defiantly, when it hadn’t had a drink or any light in weeks. Though I started re-watering it when I saw the sign of life, it did nothing more then or in the last six weeks.

As I recall from last year’s post, it’s a tardy creature, blooming in April; I expect a resurrection in another month or so. A final amaryllis detail: Don’t overpot. They are fine with a container perhaps an inch bigger than the bulb around in all directions.

Still determined to nurse that poinsettia along in your office or home? Ask the Paul Ecke family, the world’s leading producer of poinsettias for the nursery trade, how to treat it best. I suspect, however, that like me they’d prefer you toss it and buy a new one. Some things just aren’t meant to be recycled and play better as fond memories.

  1. Bob Schulenberg says:

    I’m fascinated reading all the comments; and I’m a bit embarrassed to write that, living in Los Angeles, all of the gift plants you mention, are pretty common year around garden plants. From one Kalanchoe, found discarded by a curb, I ended up with garden beds full, all from cuttings. And I have a friend whose potted white cyclamen has had a healthu crop of beautiful white blooms for about six months, possibly longer, but I’ve just been visiting for six months. I realize that your writings are aimed at the northern gardeners but I’m so glad to see that many national magazines now have articles for more temperate gardeners. There are quite a few of us!

  2. Linda Secrist says:

    Love my Christmas Cactui all 12 of them including one that belonged to my grandmother who died when i was 5 and that was over 60yrs ago,keeps chugging along.You should also try it’s cousin-the Easter or spring cactus. Just as easy to care for, just blooms on a different schedule

  3. BethA says:

    I’ve been thinking about repotting my Christmas cactus – does just plain old potting soil work? And also, I’m not really sure they are Christmas cactus – they bloom a couple different times of the year. How do I tell?
    Thank you,

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, BethA. There are “Easter” cactus and “Christmas” cactus and “Thanksgiving” cactus and they are easily confused. This page may help with ID so you can tell which you have — look at the illustrations as the foliage and flowers are slightly different in each. I have used potting soil, but added coarse sand or fine-textured gravel (like the size that might be in an aquarium, but not tinted) — you can get these additions at the garden center typically. The roots don’t want to ever be in soggy soil that holds moisture — they need good air from the pore spaces that the coarser mixture will provide.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.