In the Garden:
Pacific Northwest
December, 2005
Regional Report

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Each year this Christmas cactus bears dozens of rosy red flowers just in time for the holidays.

Holiday Gift Plants

What would the holidays be without the beauty of seasonal potted flowering plants? There probably isn't a gardener around who hasn't, at one time or another, received an amaryllis, poinsettia, or potted azalea as a gift. These gift plants can be wonderful focal points in your home, but it's best to consider them temporary because the plants spent their formative months in specially heated and lighted greenhouses -- conditions difficult to duplicate at home.

However, if you're the sort of person who really likes a challenge, you may be able to rehabilitate these Prima Donna's, and add them to your permanent collection of houseplants. Here's how:

Amaryllis
These bulbs grow best in bright light at temperatures of 60 to 70 degrees F. Plant so only one-half of the bulb is buried in the soil. The flower stalk will emerge first, followed by two or more leaves. After flowering, cut off the stalk but allow the leaves to remain. Keep the soil moist but not soggy. In spring, place the pot outdoors in a shady place. In late summer, when the leaves turn yellow and die, stop watering, bring the plant indoors, and allow it to rest in a cool, dry place for about three months. Around the first of December, repot it and bring it into a bright room. Begin watering again, and a new flower stalk and new leaves will emerge from the bulb.

Azalea
Greenhouse azaleas like bright light but will be damaged by direct sunshine. Keep the soil moist and the nighttime temperatures cool (45 to 60 degrees F). Put the plant outdoors in a shady location when the weather warms. Keep it well watered and feed lightly with an acid-based fertilizer. During the summer it will form flower buds that will open at Christmas time. Bring the plant indoors in December and it should bloom again. Greenhouse azaleas will only last a few seasons.

Christmas Cactus
When we think about cactus, we usually think "fleshy, succulent, drought-tolerant," but the Christmas cactus is actually tropical in nature and requires a highly organic soil mixture with lots of moisture. Christmas cactus likes bright light and average household temperatures. Take the plant outdoors during the summer and fertilize it monthly with a diluted houseplant food. Bring it into the house at the end of September and provide total darkness for 16 hours each day while the plant sets flower buds. The easiest way to accomplish this is to place it in a bright room for 8 hours and then either put a box over it, or put it in a closet for 16 hours. It needs total darkness; even a short burst of daylight will retard the formation of flower buds. During this bud-forcing period, keep the temperature between 60 and 70 degrees F and don't fertilize the plant. In early December your Christmas cactus can be brought into ordinary light where it will bloom in a few weeks.

Christmas Peppers and Jerusalem Cherries
They may sound edible, but these plants should be considered strictly ornamental. The peppers are extremely hot, and the cherries are toxic if eaten. Both these plants need bright, sunny conditions with average household temperatures. Dry soil will cause the leaves to wilt, so keep soil evenly moist. The pepper is an annual, and there really is no way to coax it to grow longer than one season; when it begins to look tacky, throw it out. Jerusalem cherry is a perennial and can be placed outdoors in summer. Pinch it back hard (about one-half its size), and keep it well watered. Bring the plant inside in late September, and place it in a sunny window.

Poinsettia
Possibly the most traditional of holiday gift plants, a poinsettia requires special handling to make it bloom year after year. While blooming, keep it well watered and in bright light with temperatures between 65 and 75 degrees F. In spring after the weather warms, put the plant outdoors in an area that receives morning sun. Prune back the branches to about 6 inches and continue to pinch during the growing season to keep the plant bushy. Fertilize every two to three weeks with a dilute houseplant fertilizer. About mid-September bring the poinsettia indoors and condition it to bloom by following the directions for Christmas cactus.

By following these tips, you can keep your holiday gift plants blooming and healthy year after year.


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