“It’s the most wonderful time of the year” according to one of the holiday songs on the radio.  Well for a gardener, it can be a bit depressing. The days are almost at their shortest, it is cold (sometimes bitterly cold), and it just feels like everything that used to be green is now brown (or covered in white). I have always found houseplants to be a nice reprieve from the wintertime blues. The Christmas season, however, can afford us some really nice and colorful plants.  Because they are mass produced, the cost of obtaining some to brighten up your home can be minimal. I purchased a 4-inch poinsettia from a big box store for $2.99 recently. It has been livening up our dining room table ever since. With proper watering, these little plants can spread to almost the size of their six-inch counterparts. There are more than just poinsettia plants available this time of year. As we are finding ourselves increasingly isolated due to COVID, I suggest buying some holiday plants to help raise your spirits. 

A four-inch poinsettia purchased at a big box store. Photo by mrl2020

Poinsettias are a Christmas-time staple. It is certainly the most thought of holiday plant, even though it is native to Mexico and Central America, where it is warm year-round. They can be very delicate, so avoid rough handling, cold drafts, and overwatering. Even a slight bump can break a branch resulting in an asymmetrical plant. Water only when the surface is dry, and the pot feels light. Letting the leaves wilt can result in loss of the lower leaves, and watering too much causes leaf drop and blackened stems, followed by plant death. As long as you abide by the “rules” for keeping a poinsettia, you will have a beautiful show plant for the season. My favorite part is seeing what unique varieties I can find. It seems like new ones come out each year. Some years ago I saw a yellow colored variety. I used to sell some orange ones too! Some of the bicolored leaves are a sight to see, as are the ones that looked like they are splashed with color (like Jingle Bells). The old standby of red looks amazing. Place them in groups for an absolutely stunning display. 

A splash-type poinsettia called ‘Red Glitter’. Photo by mrl2020
Another interesting newer variety of poinsettia called ‘Ice Punch’. Photo by mrl2020.

The next most common plants are the Christmas cacti. These are actually called forest cacti and are found growing on the trunks of trees in South America. They come in just about every color of the rainbow. Of course, it is the rare colored ones sought after by collectors. For years I read about a yellow version until I finally found it sold commercially at one of my favorite garden centers. These have an heirloom-like quality to them, and every now and then I hear stories of a family passing a huge version of these down through the generations. Most often people complain that it does not rebloom. They are day-length sensitive plants. If we turn on lights in our home, the plant thinks the sun is still up and will not flower. My best suggestion for promoting blooming is to place them in an unused room. This year I left mine outside as long as possible. By the time I brought them in they had already set the flower buds. I also placed them in the attic by a window. The attic stays warm enough and the natural light cycle promotes blooming. To get yours to rebloom, find a space in your home that does not receive any artificial light, but rather light from a window. Nature will take care of the rest.

Another favorite of mine is the frosty fern. Despite what its name says, it is not a fern at all. It is a member of the genus Selaginella. Commonly called “spikemoss” or “creeping moss,” these names are all misleading as well. Although similar to ferns in the sense that they are seedless vascular plants, they are not ferns! True mosses lack vascular tissue, so those names are problematic too. No matter what you call them, they are rather beautiful plants. During the holidays, a green variety with white tips is sold. I recommend keeping them moist at all times, and even leaving some water in the bottom of the container. They are very unforgiving because if they dry out, they are dead.      

A lovely frosty fern with a red bird for decoration. Photo by mrl,2020.

Another holiday favorite is the amaryllis. These are either purchased by the grower or given as gifts. Many times, they are sold as kits, and consist of a large bulb, potting mix, and a pot. You really get your money’s worth with these as there is a lot of excitement and anticipation planting it and watching it grow. It usually takes about 6 to 8 weeks before they bloom. The culminating effect is a rather large cluster of flowers that last for a while. There are many colors of these in the white, red, pink, and orange ranges. These are many times treated like annuals and thrown away after bloom. If cared for properly; however, it is possible to get them to bloom year after year. 

A white amaryllis plant. Photo by mrl2020.

Cyclamen are an interesting plant. Another bulb-type plant, these look incredible for a long time.  They are loaded with flowers that last. They like to be moist but not soggy. Although treated like temporary disposable plants, they can also be grown for years. Many times, I see these in peoples’ houses where a few shoots are sent up, but that is it. Unless you are willing to give them some time and attention, they are probably best left as temporary decorations.  

There are many other types of plants sold under the guise of “holiday plants.” One of the more interesting are table-top mini Christmas trees. These are actually a type of Cypress tree and really are not indoor plants. They are best suited as a larger table center piece, or a side table type display. The ones I saw for sale this year came in a nice display bag and were already decorated.  There are some neat yellow and green variegated false hollies being offered for sale too. These are really eye-catching plants, but like the cypress, are not suited to long term growth inside our homes. There just is not enough light intensity. One of the best year-round available blooming houseplants is the kalanchoe. During this time of year, you will mostly see red and white versions for sale. Most people have hopes of getting it to rebloom, but this rarely happens in the home. These are best enjoyed in the moment, and composted when their beauty fades. 

A cypress tree ready for gifting. Photo by mrl2020.
A yellow and green variegated false holly. Photo by mrl2020.
A nicely potted up festive red kalanchoe. Photo by mrl2020.

So, I know that COVID may severely impact our family and friend gatherings.  Having said that, there is nothing wrong with dropping off one of these colorful festive plants on a loved one’s doorstep for them to enjoy throughout the season. Many of these are also available mail order as well. Grocery stores tend to have displays of these holiday plants right by the entrance. Since we all need to eat, pick up a plant for the table. Your immediate family will appreciate it!

Happy Holidays,

Matt Lisy

Wandering through the woods across the street from my childhood home, I was always anxious to identify the next new plant or bird I encountered. Leafing through the pages of my well-worn Golden Guides, I would do my best to pick out the specimen and then mark it off in the table of contents – my plant and bird life lists before I know what one was.

golden guides trees

Golden Guide from http://www.amazon.com

None of the Golden Guides I owned were able to identify this one curious, moss-like plant and it wasn’t until I took botany in college that I discovered club mosses. The three species I most commonly happened upon in woodland and wetland walks were shining club moss (now called shining firmoss, Huperzia lucidula), running cedar (Diphasiastrum digitatum) and ground pine (Dendrolycopodium obscurum).

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Shining fir moss from Wikipedia commons

running cedar diphasiastrum from wikipedia

Running cedar from http://www.wikipedia.com

Truthfully, I had not been giving club mosses much thought these days until my brother presented me with a frosty fern as a holiday hosting gift. Looking up care for a frosty fern (Selaginella krausuanna variegatus), I discovered that it is a club moss relative. The secret to keeping a frosty fern is bright light but not direct sun, adequate moisture and a good dose of humidity. The watering part is not hard but it is difficult to keep heated homes humid during the cold winter months.

frosty fern

Frosty fern. Photo by dmp, 2018

All of these plants were at one time placed in the Lycopodiaceae family and into the Lycopodium genus. These plants have since been reclassified and like asters, their older, easier to pronounce Latin names have been changed. Now the Flora of North America recognizes 7 genera and 27 species although there are probably several hundred species worldwide. Since they do share many similar characteristics, I’m going to group these fascinating plants together when discussing their natural history and life cycles.

Club mosses or lycophytes evolved over 410 million years ago. They were one of the earliest groups of vascular plants. In case you need a biology class reminder, vascular plants have xylem and phloem tissues that move water, nutrients and carbohydrates throughout the plant. During the Carboniferous geologic period (360 – 286 million years ago), lycophytes along with ferns and horsetails were dominant forms of vegetation in some areas of the planet with some club mosses reaching 100 feet in height. As these plants died out by 250 million years ago, their petrified remains became today’s coal and fossil fuel beds.

gettyimages-carbon era

Vegetation in Carboniferous period consisted of huge club mosses, ferns, horsetails and other plants. From Getty Images.

Lycophytes are evergreen plants and fairly cosmopolitan in nature found from the arctic to temperate forests to the tropics. As a general rule of thumb, most tropical lycophytes are epiphytes and most arctic and temperate ones are terrestrial. Although the species native to this area often appear to look like separate miniature evergreens, they are generally connected together by rhizomes or runners. What appear to be leaves are actually structures called microphylls. They have but a single cylinder of vascular tissue to carry water and nutrients.

Plants have a curious but primitive reproductive system – they reproduce by spores. In some club moss species, club-like appendages, called strobili, are produced on the tops of the conifer-like plants. These have structures called sporangia (singular is sporangium). In other species, the sporangia are formed on certain ‘leaves’ of the plant. Wherever they occur, each sporangium produces large numbers of tiny spores. These are often collected and sold as lycopodium powder. The spores germinate to form gametophytes which then go on to produce eggs and sperm. Sometimes the gametophyte generation develops below ground with the help of mycorrhizal fungi and sometimes above ground, depending on the lycophyte species. Eventually the sperm fertilizes the eggs and the sporophyte generation, which is the plant we see above ground, arises. It may take up to 15 years for the plant to complete its sexual reproductive phase. Some club mosses can also reproduce asexually by means of rhizomes or runners and some even have specialized groups of cells on the tips of their stems, called gemmae, that fall off and become new plants.

princess pine

Princess pine aka Dendrolycopodium obscurum with ‘clubs’ or strobili. Photo by dmp, 2019

Humans have found many uses for club mosses including holiday decorations. Because the plants are so slow growing, this practice is frowned upon and should be discouraged.

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Ground pine colonies are found in deciduous hardwood forests. Photo by dmp, 2019

Since ancient times, Native Americans as well as Europeans have used the spores and leaves for medicinal purposes such as to cure digestive and urinary tract problems, for skin ailments and inducing labor. Because the spores repel water, they were used by pharmacists to coat pills, to treat skin rashes and even on babies’ bottoms. They were also used as dye plants.

Another property of spores is that they are highly flammable. This lead to them being used by Native Americans for ceremonial purposes, in early flash photography, fireworks and in stage productions. Lycopodium powder is still sold for many purposes including their pyrotechnic properties!

Happy Horticultural New Year!

Dawn P.