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DALY: Keeping holiday plants attractive through the season

Timothy Daly

Timothy Daly

Recently, as I was doing some early shopping for Christmas gifts, I observed numerous colorful holiday plants for sale. They create festive displays that complement other decorations and also make great gifts.

Poinsettias and holiday cacti are among the most popular and attractive Christmas plants. Some special care is required to extend their beauty throughout the holiday season and beyond.

There are three types of holiday cacti that bloom at different times of the year. They flower at Thanksgiving, Christmas or Easter. The flowers are red, purple, orange, pink or cream colors. 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 do not fertilize when the plants are in flower. The onset of flowering is brought about by the shorter daylight hours of fall. After the flowers drop, 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 until night temperatures reach 50 degrees.

Poinsettias are the most popular of the holiday plants. The brightly colored bracts, which are actually modified leaves, are red, white, pink or cream colors. The actual flowers of the poinsettia are the small yellow blooms in the center of the colorful bracts. Like the Christmas cactus, the shorter daylight hours of 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. The poinsettias need to be placed in a location receiving at least six hours of bright, indirect sunlight each day. Avoid direct sunlight since it can cause the color of the bracts to fade.

To keep the bracts from fading, the daytime temperature should not be 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 up and down the stem from the nodes. Keep the plant near a sunny window and continue to water it regularly. Once the night temperature remains above 50 degrees Fahrenheit, poinsettias 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 in the fall.

These are some of the wonderful holiday plants available this season. With minimal maintenance, they will add beauty to your holiday displays and your visitors will be impressed. No home would be complete without them.

Timothy Daly, MS, is an Agricultural and Natural Resource Extension Agent with the Gwinnett County Extension. Contact him by phone at 678-377-4010 or by e-mail at timothy.daly@gwinnettcounty.com.