“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

Pointsettias pink and cream Peterstar marble variety-1

Did you receive a plant during this holiday season? Poinsettia, holiday cactus and rosemary trees are filling the shelves in greenhouses, grocery stores and even big box stores appealing to the giver to gift a plant lover on their list. While they are beautiful plants, they will need the correct care to keep them that way and in good health.

The familiar red foliage of the poinsettia plant are modified leaves called bracts. They surround the actual small, yellow flower at the center of the red bracts. Once the pollen from the flowers are shed, the bracts are dropped from the plant. Chose plants with little to no pollen for the bracts to be retained for a longer length of time. Plant breeders are developing different colored bracts, including variegated, offering many options than just red.

Poinsettias should be treated as houseplants as they are native to Mexico and will not tolerate cold temperatures. Keep the plants out of the way of drafts and not near cold windows. They prefer six hours of indirect light daily, and inside temps of 60 to 70 degrees F during the day, with night temps a little cooler. Water when the soil is dry, then drain excess from saucer or foil wrapping. Remove the foil wrapping to increase airflow to roots. Continuously wet soil will invite root rot, a common killer of poinsettia. Fertilizer once per month whenever the plant is not in bloom. Plants can be moved outside for a ‘summer vacation’ as long as they are located in dappled shade. Bring them back inside before frost in the fall. To coax the plant to flower and produce red bracts again the following year, put the plant into a dark room or closet for 12 hours at time for at five to six days in a row. Provide bright light during the other 12 hours of the day. This light/dark cycle triggers the photoperiodism mechanism within the plant to flower.

christmas cactus Dawn light pink1-1

Christmas cactus is another favorite holiday plant that can live for many years if properly care is given. They commonly come in shades of pink, white and even yellow. Christmas cactus (Schlumbergera x buckleyi) bloom around the end of December, and Thanksgiving cactus (Schlumbergera truncata) bloom about a month earlier.  In their native environment, they live in the crotches of trees up in the forests in Central America. Known as epiphytes, they root in decomposing organic matter (leaves) which catch in tree branches. Both require the same care and dislike being overwatered. Provide well-draining potting mix such as cactus mix, and allow soil to feel dry on the surface before watering. Clay pots are a good choice for holiday cactus, and both flower better when slightly root bound.

Holiday cactus needs full sun in spring and fall, and can be placed outside in dappled shade during the summer. Fertilize with an all-purpose houseplant fertilizer once every two weeks during the summer growing season. Bring in plants before first frost and never let them be in temperatures below 50 degrees F. They will need a rest of reduced watering after flowering, usually during the winter months. Shortened days and longer nights of fall trigger the plants to set flower buds. Cooler temperatures below 68 degrees F also help buds to form. Household lights turned on can interrupt the 12 hours of darkness needed, resulting in reduced bud formation. A cool, spare room not used at night is the perfect location to initiate flower buds.

rosemary plant photo from University of Georgia

Rosemary tree. photo from University of GA

Rosemary plants pruned into the shape of an evergreen tree are popular and useful gift. The leaves are a culinary herb used in cooking. It is a tender perennial, grown outside in the summer and can be brought in for the winter treating as a houseplant. Rosemary is native to the Mediterranean area, giving a clue to its needs for good drainage, warm temperatures and good airflow. It does better in a terra cotta or clay pot rather than a plastic one. Clay allows the soil to dry out more. Set the potted plant in a south or west window to receive six to eight hours of sun each day during its inside time during the winter. I summer, sink the pot and all in hole in the garden making it easy to bring inside next fall before first frost. Repot once a year in either spring or fall as they easily become root bound. Prune whenever you need to harvest the leaves for cooking.

The biggest problem with growing rosemary indoors is powdery mildew, a whitish/grey fungal disease. Fungicides are not recommended since the plant is edible. Neem oil is the exception and can be used on light infections, then washed well before eating. Locate the plant in a spot where the plant will have lots of airflow, not be crowded, and let the soil dry out completely before watering. If the air in your home is too dry, the needled leaves will dry out. With too much humidity, powdery mildew can develop.  Fertilize in the late spring when moving the plant back outside.  Herbs don’t need much fertilizing and will produce better on a lean soil. Over-fertilized plants are more prone to powdery mildew infections.

-Carol Quish

christmas cactus Dawn 2-1

As we decorate our homes for the holidays with cheery plants, evergreen boughs and berries, it is important to take into account which plants and materials might be toxic to young children and pets. Many plants can pose serious threats to the curious two year old or inquisitive dog, cat or bird.

According to Botanic Gardens Conservation International, there are approximately 400,000 known species of plants inhabiting the earth. Of these, only about 700 species found in this hemisphere are know to cause loss of life or serious illness in man or animals. The toxicity of many new, exotic houseplants and garden plants is not as of yet known. Also be aware that even ‘safe’ plants may cause problems as the plant or soil may be contaminated with pesticides and/or growth regulators. If your household contains young children or curious pets, you may want to consider purchasing plants from an organic grower or placing them out of reach.

Not all plants listed on poisonous plant lists are fatal. Plants are labeled as poisonous if they cause any kind of problem to humans, farm animals or pets. Some are extremely toxic. For example, two oleander leaves will prove fatal to an adult. Other plants may just cause minor skin irritations.Most toxic plants are bitter to the taste or irritate the mouth so generally the animal or person stops eating or chewing on it long before enough is consumed to cause any toxic effects.

Let us look at some common holiday plant materials and their toxicity. First, let me dismiss the rumor concerning poinsettias. They are not the deadly plants they have been made out to be. However, they do contain a white, latex-like sap. Some people are allergic to this sap and a contact dermatitis may result. If eaten, they may cause injury to the digestive track.

Christmas Confetti Poinsettia bred by Bob Shabot, UConn

Christmas Confetti Poinsettia bred by Bob Shabot, UConn

Holiday cacti and Norfolk Island pines are nontoxic. Ornamental pepper plants with their tiny, bright colored fruits are not poisonous but, wow, are they hot!

Christmas cactus at UConn Floriculture Greenhouse

Christmas cactus at UConn Floriculture Greenhouse

Some of the more toxic plants include amaryllis with its gorgeous, trumpet-shaped blooms, azaleas and Jerusalem cherries. The bright orange fruits of the Jerusalem cherry are especially alluring to small children. The English ivy (Hedera helix) used sometimes in indoor arrangements and topiaries contains saponins. These produce a burning sensation in the throat and may cause severe abdominal pain.

Lovely trumpet blooms of amaryllis

Lovely trumpet blooms of amaryllis

Evergreens are also often used in arrangements, for wreaths and swags, and as roping. Branches from yews, laurel, holly and boxwood are extremely toxic. (Why yews don’t at least give the deer feeding on them a stomach ache remains a mystery to me.) The Delaware Indians used laurel leaves in preparing a suicide tea. The shiny holly berries may prove attractive and sicken children. Mistletoe is also extremely poisonous and should not be used where children or pets may access it.

Mistletoe from flowers.org.uk

Mistletoe from flowers.org.uk

If you have a question about whether a plant is poisonous or not, call the UCONN Home and Garden Education Center at (860) 486-6271, visit us on the web at www.ladybug.uconn.edu, or contact your local Cooperative Extension Office. Information about the toxicity of plants as well as other substances is available by calling the National Poison Hotline at (800) 222-1222 which is open 24/7. Here’s to a safe and healthy holiday season!

Dawn P.