DALY: Holiday plants require special care to survive

Along with evergreens, several ornamental plants help create festive displays during the holiday months. Poinsettias and holiday cacti are among the most popular, and can be attractive plants for the home and the office if they are properly cared for.

There are three types of holiday cacti that bloom at different times of the year. They flower at Thanksgiving, Christmas and Easter. The flowers come in red, purple, orange, pink and cream colors. The long stems make them an excellent choice for hanging baskets.

The plants prefer brightly lit areas of indirect sunlight that are not in cold or hot drafts of air. The soil should be kept moist but not water logged. Fertilize them once a month between April and September with a well-balanced complete fertilizer such as 10-10-10 but not when the plants are in flower. The onset of flowering is brought about by the shorter daylight hours of the fall.

After the flowers drop off, pinch back the stems to promote branching. Sometimes people claim that their holiday cactus never flowers. Not receiving adequate light is often the main reason. The plants can be placed outside in a shady or partly shady location during the warmer months of the year.

Poinsettias are the most popular of the holiday plants. The brightly colored bracts, which are actually modified leaves, come in red, white, pink and cream colors. The actual flowers of the poinsettia plant are the small yellow blooms in the center of the colorful bracts. Like the Christmas cactus, the shorter daylight hours of the fall initiate flowering. Purchase plants that have fully mature, thoroughly colored bracts with an abundance of dark, rich green foliage all the way down the stem. They should be balanced, full and attractive from all sides, with stiff stems, good bract and leaf retention, and show no signs of wilting, breaking or drooping.

Poinsettias need to be placed in a location receiving at least six hours of bright, indirect sunlight each day (direct sunlight can cause the color of the bracts to fade). To keep the bracts from fading, the daytime temperature should not be any more than 70 degrees, and the plants need to be kept away from drafts, excessive heat or dry air from appliances, fireplaces or ventilating ducts. Temperatures that drop below 50 degrees can cause chilling injuries leading to premature leaf drop. Poinsettias require moderately moist soil. Water the pots thoroughly when the soil feels dry to the touch. Avoid fertilization when the plant is in bloom.

In the spring, after the colorful bracts have faded, prune the plant back to about eight inches in height. The plant will look bare after pruning; however, new leaves will emerge from the nodes up and down the stem. Keep the plant near a sunny window and continue to water it regularly. Once the night temperature remains above 50 degrees, the poinsettia plants can be taken outside. Fertilize the plant once a month during the spring, summer and fall with 10-10-10 fertilizer. Bring them back indoors when the temperatures drop below 50 degrees in the fall.

Timothy Daly, MS, Agricultural and Natural Resource Extension Agent, Gwinnett County Extension. He may be contacted by phone at 678-377-4010 or by e-mail at timothy.daly@gwinnettcounty.com.