Published Jan. 3, 2016, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Christmas plants: How to keep them alive year-round.”
Keep the plants of Christmas alive year round
By Barb Gorges
Did you buy or receive one of the iconic Christmas season plants? Did you know they can be kept alive to bloom again? Some are more of a challenge than others, but it’s worthwhile to try.
Mail-order amaryllis arrive as bare bulbs, or bulbs planted in pots barely bigger than they are. They love being snug, with only an inch to spare between them and the edge of the pot.
I received a bulb by mail years ago. After enjoying its big blooms, I cut away the withered flower stalk. But the big strappy leaves were still a nice green accent on the windowsill so I kept watering. Over the summer I put it outside, under our clear patio roof, where it would be protected from hail, and it kept adding leaves. The following March it flowered and has every spring for seven years.
At the time, standard advice on getting an amaryllis to re-bloom involved letting it go dormant, then beginning watering two months before bloom was wanted. Maybe people didn’t want to put up with the floppy leaves or maybe they wanted it to bloom again at Christmas and not March.
This particular red amaryllis has a bulb that is now 6 inches in diameter with two off-shoots. In contrast, a pale pink variety I’ve had even longer has a bulb that never grows bigger than 3 inches in diameter, but it has been producing daughter bulbs. Last year I separated and replanted seven.
Amaryllis like plenty of light and do well with our average home temperatures and humidity. Karen Panter, University of Wyoming Extension Horticulture Specialist, said for fertilizer, use half of what the label says.
Shane Smith, director of the Cheyenne Botanic Gardens reminds us an amaryllis is poisonous, “Keep it away from kids and dogs.”
You may see poinsettias growing outside some place tropical, but not here.
Keep them watered, making sure water can drain out through the bottom of the pot and isn’t impeded by decorative wrapping.
The colorful “flowers” – which are actually bracts, or specialized leaves—will eventually fade and fall off. My experience is that by summer poinsettias are rather leggy, and may look disposable.
Karen thinks we should buy fresh every year—to support her friends in the poinsettia-growing industry.
But if you want the challenge, there are directions I found online. In March, cut back the stems to 4 to 6 inches, put it in a sunny window and apply diluted fertilizer every two weeks.
In May, after last frost, put it outside in shade, eventually moving it into 6-8 hours of sun per day. Pinch shoots once or twice between late June and mid-August.
In mid-September, before first frost, bring the poinsettia in and place it in a sunny window. By early October give it complete darkness between 5 p.m. and 8 a.m.—no artificial light. The bracts should develop good color by early December.
Will you accept the challenge this year?
Shane said the word “cactus” in their name gives people the wrong idea about caring for the Christmas cactus.
“Instead, they need less light and more water than cactus,” he said. “They are known as forest cacti and naturally live in the crotches of trees in the tropics. They love being root bound,” he said.
Getting Christmas cactus to re-bloom involves very particular light therapy, said Karen. Referred to as a short day plant, it is actually a long night plant, requiring darkness greater than 12 hours beginning a couple months in advance of Christmas. It needs to be protected from all light sources between 5 p.m. and 8 a.m., every single night. Perhaps you’ll have to put a box over it. But during the day it needs lots of light.
Even if you have a light accident, your Christmas cactus may still bloom depending on the variety.
Spring, or Easter cactus, is a different species and requires semi-dormancy (less water) in fall and winter, but the same light treatment to produce blooms.
These cactus can be propagated from leaf cuttings.
Miniature Christmas Trees
The Jackson and Perkins catalog features 18-inch-tall, live, coniferous evergreens in beautiful pots, decorated with lights and ornaments.
You might be thinking about where to plant the little tree next spring. But not all of these trees can survive outside in Cheyenne.
Trees identified as European or lemon cypress, or Italian stone pine, are all rated warm-climate, Zone 8-10. Treat them as house plants. We live in Zone 5, though we tend to favor plants rated for Zone 4 and lower, for extra assurance they will survive winter.
But you can plant the Dwarf Alberta spruce outside. A paler green than the familiar blue spruce, with very short needles, it is rated Zone 2 through 6 and does well here. However, it may only grow about 12 feet high in 25 years.
“But if it has been grown in the house for a long period, its hardiness might decline due to the shock,” Shane said.
It is best if live Christmas trees you want to plant outside next spring are not in the warm house long enough to break dormancy, meaning the bundles of new needles begin opening.
After less than a week you may have to put your tree out somewhere cool, like your garage, but not so cool the roots freeze.
Check every once in a while to see if it needs watering. When the ground thaws in April, you can plant it outside. Use the tree-planting methods explained in a previous column archived at www.CheyenneGardenGossip.wordpress.com.
General houseplant care instructions
Any potted plant has the potential to become a permanent resident of your home. If the information tag doesn’t tell you how much sun and water it requires, look it up on the Internet. Then figure out where in your house will suit it best.
Karen said many houseplants can adapt to a wide range of conditions and are happiest if left to adapt to one place. The most important step for success is to train yourself to water them the right amount.
Check a newly acquired houseplant daily for a couple weeks to get a sense of how quickly the soil dries out (and if it has bugs). Vigorous growers in a warm house in small pots with soil that doesn’t hold water well may need water every few days. More absorbent potting soil under opposite conditions may take two weeks for the top inch to dry out, the sign for most plants that watering is finally required. In the winter it might be a week or two between waterings.
Add water a bit at a time until it begins to drain into the saucer underneath. Empty the saucer or use a turkey baster (not to be used for cooking again) to siphon up the overflow.
Regarding fertilizer, Karen recommends the slow-release type. The one commonly available in Cheyenne stores is Osmacote. Measure out an application as directed and you won’t have to think about it again for months.
It’s quite possible your gift plant will continue growing, even flower again, and perhaps even multiply, allowing you to pass new plants on as gifts to others.