amaryllis (17155 bytes)

Holiday Plants

By Judy Sedbrook, Colorado Master GardenerSM, Colorado State University Cooperative Extension, Denver County

Blooming plants have become a colorful Christmas tradition. They can be found beginning in November at florists, nurseries, and even the local grocery store. Listed below are some of the more popular plants that are available at Christmas and how to care for them.

square1.gif (356 bytes)  Poinsettia

square1.gif (356 bytes)   Amaryllis

square1.gif (356 bytes)   Christmas Cactus

square1.gif (356 bytes)   Paperwhite Narcissus




Poinsettias are tropical plants, originating in southern Mexico and Central America. Introduced in the United States by our first ambassador to Mexico, Joel Poinsett, the poinsettia has become the traditional Christmas plant. They are available in red, pink, gold, white and variegated colors.

When purchasing your poinsettia, look for a plant with dark green, healthy foliage, strong stems and bright colored bracts. Always check for insects before bringing a new plant into your home. If the temperature outside is below 50 degrees, have the plant wrapped before taking it outside.

Place your poinsettia in a well-lit location, out of direct sunlight and drafts. If the plant comes in a decorative foil wrapping, make a hole in the bottom to allow for good drainage. Water often enough to keep the soil evenly moist but not soggy. Wilting and yellowing of leaves can result both from too little and too much water. Do not let the plant sit in water as this may result in root rot.

The colorful bracts may only last for several weeks but the poinsettia can be kept as a green houseplant all year. Water regularly to keep the soil evenly moist and fertilize monthly. The poinsettia requires long nights to stimulate bloom. If you want it to bloom again for the holidays, place the poinsettia in a room where you can keep it in the dark for 14 hours at night beginning in October. You may have to cover it with an inverted wastebasket or dark plastic garbage bag each night to keep the light out. Left to itself, the plant will probably not bloom again until February.

Contrary to popular belief, recent research had proven the poinsettia to be non-poisonous. It is not edible, though, and some people are allergic to its milky sap and may develop a rash if they come into contact with it. To be safe, keep your plant out of the reach of children and pets.

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Christmas Cactus

A thornless member of the cactus family, the Christmas cactus can make an easy -to-care-for addition to your collection of houseplants. They require bright, indirect light and, different than most other cactus, need light to moderate watering.

During the spring and summer, water and fertilize at regular intervals. Keep soil moist to touch but do not allow plant to sit in water. Originating in South America, the Christmas cactus prefers a humid environment and may have to be placed on a pebble tray.

To encourage bud development, begin cutting back on watering in late summer, keeping the soil barely moist to touch. This will allow the plant to become dormant, or to rest. Do not feed the cactus during this time. Six weeks before Christmas place the plant in a room with a cooler temperature, 60-65 degrees. It should receive 10 hours of light during the day and 14 hours of total darkness at night. If you do not have a totally dark room, the plant can be covered at night with a dark garbage bag to achieve this.

When buds form, resume regular watering and feeding again. If the plant does not stay moist, there may be bud drop.

The Christmas cactus is available in pink, white, red and violet.

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The Amaryllis is a tropical, originating in South America, and is grown for its large, 8 to 10 inch blooms. It comes in shades of red, pink, orange, coral, white and bicolor.

Plant the amaryllis bulb in a pot with adequate drainage, just barely larger than the bulb. Amaryllis like to be pot-bound. Use sterile potting soil, adding about an inch to the bottom of the pot. Place the bulb in the pot making sure to spread the roots carefully. Add more soil, leaving about 2/3 of the bulb above the soil-level. Water thoroughly. When it begins to grow, move the amaryllis to a sunny window. Water whenever the soil feels dry to the touch. Fertilize monthly.

After the plant has finished blooming, cut back the flower stalk but not the leaves. Continue to grow the plant as you would any other houseplant, watering and fertilizing at regular intervals.

In the spring, place the amaryllis plant in a window where is can get bright sun or move it outside to a sunny location.

In September, bring the plant indoors. Place in a cool area (preferably about 55 degrees) and do not water for 6 to 8 weeks. In November, remove all of the old foliage and water thoroughly. Place in a sunny location. When the plant starts growing, resume fertilizing. Water sparingly at first, increasing the amount of water as the plant grows in size. New blooms should appear in 3 to 8 weeks.

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Paperwhite Narcissus

Paperwhite narcissus is one of the easiest bulbs to force if you want a beautiful floral display for the holidays. With no preparation requirements, they can be planted as soon as you get them home. Be sure to buy bulbs that are firm to the touch and have no discoloration.

Start with an inch or two of sterile potting soil in a shallow, decorative container. Place the bulbs close together, nearly touching each other, with their pointed end up. Add more potting soil to hold them in place, leaving the top half of the bulbs uncovered. Water thoroughly and often enough to keep moist. Paperwhites can also be grown in water alone (use marbles or pebbles to hold the bulbs upright). They require no fertilizer.

After planting, place the bulbs in a well lit but cool room until the shoots are about an inch tall. They can then be moved to a warmer location. Paperwhites blooms will last from 4 to 8 weeks. They bloom only once, and when done, should be discarded.

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Photograph of amaryllis courtesy of Mason Sedbrook.

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Date last revised: 01/05/2010