Wednesday November 14, 2007

Winter Interests and Holiday Cheer

with year-end festivities in full swing, outdoor gardening chores are put aside and the focus turns inwards to home and hearth. If your green thumbs are suffering withdrawal symptoms, keep them nimble by minding your indoor plants. Holiday plants used to decorate and cheer our homes also need attention, and a little care can go a long way toward keeping them healthy. Houseplants that summered outdoors should rest over the winter with a gradual reduction of feeding and watering regimes, allowing them to ease into their rest period. Holiday plants and actively flowering and growing houseplants need to be watered and fed regularly, but remember that over-watering is the most common cause for house plant deaths. Watering from the bottom allows plants to take up water as needed and the excess can be drained away.

At the top of every holiday list, the poinsettia, Euphorbia pulcherrima, is by far the best-selling holiday potted plant, with over 61 million sold last year. The red poinsettia led in popularity, with white a distant second, and pink third. Dr. Joel Poinsett, a botanist and keen gardener who was the United States ambassador to Mexico from 1825 to 1829, introduced the plants to America after he saw them being used to decorate churches at Christmas. In its native Mexico, the poinsettia is known as “flor de la noche Buena,” the Nativity flower. A member of the Euphorbiaceae family, it oozes the typical milky sap which is not poisonous but can cause a skin irritation.

When selecting poinsettias, look for plants with dark green foliage down to the soil line—there should be no yellowed, fallen or wilted leaves. Ideally, the plant should be 2 1/2 times taller than the container’s diameter and should have a full, balanced and attractive look from all sides. Protect the plant during transport or exposure to temperatures below 50 degrees F, as even a few minutes uncovered can cause damage.

If you think poinsettias are ho-hum, there are alternatives. In the flowering range why not try a Christmas cactus, Schlumbergera truncata? Its flattened “leaves” are really trailing stems pouring forth and covered in a profusion of showy flowers which range from pale to vivid pinks, lavender and white. Most Christmas cacti sold are Thanksgiving cacti which is why many of you have them blooming early. The true Christmas cactus has rounded "teeth" on its leaves while the Thanksgiving cactus has pointed teeth. As a cactus will flower for weeks, a Thanksgiving cactus lasts through both holidays. Unlike poinsettias, Christmas cacti are often passed down and around in families. (My sister has one from our grandmother which continues to flower yearly without fail.) The showy blooms enchant, care is easy, and its trailing habit makes it suitable for a hanging basket or on a pedestal.

Another charming alternative is the eye-catching cyclamen, Cyclamen persicum, a tuberous perennial that arrived in mid 17th century Britain, later becoming the darling of Victorian plant breeders. Decorative dark-green foliage is patterned with silver, above which an abundance of flowers rise on long stalks in brightly colored red, magenta or pinks to pale pinks and white. When buying a cyclamen, check down in the foliage for lots of unopened buds.

Beyond the holiday flowering cast are evergreens. The dwarf Alberta spruce, Picea glauca ‘Conica’ has a densely conical shape, which makes for the perfect table-top Christmas tree. Hardy in our Zone 6, it may be planted out in the spring. Norfolk Island pine, Araucaria heterophylla, has a feathery appearance with stiff branches arranged in tiers. It will make a good houseplant throughout the year, but will not survive outdoors. Last, but not least, is the herb Rosemary, Rosmarinus officinalis, which until the 20th century was very popular at Christmas. Rosemary is an evergreen shrub hardy to Zone 7, but over-wintering it indoors has exasperated many. Give it a cool, bright spot with a southern or western exposure. Like all Mediterranean plants, it hates being waterlogged, so simply mist it now and then to keep it happy. Rosemary signifies friendship, love, and remembrance, which are three timely sentiments to wish loved ones over the holidays.



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