Home & Garden

Caring for gift plants

gardening by Mary Robson, Area Horticulture Agent, Washington State University
During the holiday season, when garden chores outdoors don't have much appeal, there's the pleasure of tending indoor gardens.
   This time of year many of us find bright, familiar flowers coming home as gifts or bought for decorating homes.
   But often these poinsettias, amaryllis, pots of blooming tulips, and cyclamen don't thrive in home atmospheres or puzzle us with their contradictory requirements. What are the clues to success?
   The first, and most important, is to make sure all decorative plants have good drainage.
   Turn the pots over and pierce several holes in the colored wrappings. Devoted plant-lovers often remove the wrapper, but many people like to leave it for color.
   Check when you water to be sure it drains; water held at the root level can ruin plants. This is vital!
   Poinsettias are probably the most essential plant for the holiday scene. Certainly they appear everywhere!
   This fascinating plant grows in the wild in Mexico, becoming a large shrub often reaching eight to 12 feet tall. The common name comes from Joel Poinsett, a 19th-century ambassador to Mexico whose interest in botany was celebrated by naming the plant after him.
   The bright color we perceive as "flowering" is actually a leaf color change on plant structures call "bracts." The flowers are the insignificant yellow knobs in the center of the bracts.
   The botanical name is Euphorbia pulcherrima: The poinsettia, while not hardy outdoors here, is in the same family as perennial euphorbias. A broken stem produces the milky rubber-like sap common to euphorbias.
   Plant breeders, particularly in California, have tinkered with the original red color and produced rainbows of poinsettias, in nearly every color found in a tropical sunset, and with variegated leaves. These handsome plants can stay bright for several weeks in a home atmosphere if they are cared for properly.
   First, because they are tropical in nature, they hate drafts. Keep poinsettias in a bright, uniformly warm place, 65 to 70 degrees.
   Water when the top of the soil surface dries out slightly, and be sure to water the entire pot. (Standing it in a pan of tepid water to take up moisture from the bottom is a good practice, though not absolutely necessary.) The plant will not need fertilizer during the period of leaf color.
   Amaryllis are large, showy bulbous flowers native to South Africa. (Their botanical genus is Hippeastrum.) The flower stalk, which comes up before the leaves, produces immense trumpet-shaped flowers, often several to a stalk.
   These too require warm temperatures and could happily share a cozy windowsill with poinsettias. Keep these moist and water when the top of the soil surface is dry. Don't overwater or let them stand in water.
   When leaves begin to appear on amaryllis, cut off the old flower stalk. Fertilize every two weeks with any liquid houseplant fetilizer. Leaf growth will continue through summer, and the plant can spend summer outdoors, in bright sunlight.
   These are relatively easy to coax into another year's bloom if the plant is allowed to go completely dormant at the end of August and left without any water for two to three months. Repot and water, beginning the next growth cycle for the bloom.
   One expert suggests that at least four healthy leaves are necessary to support one flower stalk. This is a way of noting that the better the summer leaf growth, the healthier the bulb for next year's bloom.
   Several other common plants sold at this season also enjoy the light, warm conditions shared by amaryllis and poinsettias.
   Kalanchoe, a plant with bright clusters of red, yellow or orange flowers, is a succulent with thick leaves. Keep them warm but don't overwater these; they do not require as much water as poinsettias.
   Christmas cactus, a catch-all term for a number of different plants of tropical origin, blooms with handsome brilliant dangling flowers from stiff cactus-like branches. (Most of these are in the genus Schlumbergera.) Keep these evenly watered but not soggy while they are in bloom.
   Other common holiday plants need cool temperatures and wouldn't thrive on the windowsill with the poinsettias, amaryllis, kalanchoes and Christmas cactus.
   Any pots of blooming spring bulbs such as daffodils, tulips, or paperwhite narcissus must be kept in light COOL conditions for best survival. These can even be left outdoors when the temperature is over 35 degrees F.
   One of the prettiest holiday decorations on a sheltered porch, deck or patio is a pot of blooming paperwhite narcissus backed by cut greens.
   Azaleas and chrysanthemums also need cooler temperatures, between 45 and 50 for best persistence of bloom. Don't let either of these dry out (a wilted azalea is a dying azalea). Avoid blasts of hot air on these (hairdryers? furnace grates?).
   One of the most finicky household plants is the florist's cyclamen, a graceful flowering plant that grows from a tuberous root. Leaves are often marked with attractive silver patterns, and flowers are held above leaves on short stalks.
   If a cyclamen begins to droop, wilt or get yellow leaves in household conditions, don't be dismayed. They need bright light but cool temperatures (55-65 degrees) and high humidity.
   These grow well in greenhouses with controlled temperature and humidity conditions. In northern California, and occasionally in sheltered locations in Seattle, they are used for outdoor decorations. Most homes are too warm for them.
   Water the plant from below; if water is consistently poured on the top of the plant, rot may set into the tuber. Faded flower stalks and leaves should be pulled out of the plant, not cut off. Just jerk them cleanly out. Enjoy cyclamen, but view them as a transitory pleasure.
   Flowers can contribute beauty and traditional elegance to holiday homes. If you're looking for a good reference book on houseplants check out the Reader's Digest book, Success With House Plants (1981 and later editions), for dandy line drawings and excellent cultural advice.