Caring for Christmas Plants

Learn how to keep your favorite holiday plants thriving all year.
Amaryllis 'Dancing Queen'

Amaryllis 'Dancing Queen'

Photo by: Image courtesy of Colorblends

Image courtesy of Colorblends

Amaryllis 'Dancing Queen' is a double-bloom variety that produces large red-and-white striped flowers. It is an excellent variety to brighten up your home through the holidays.


Plants make wonderful Christmas gifts, and most can decorate a tabletop or windowsill even after the season.

But holiday plants can be intimidating. Because most are raised in greenhouses, they often show signs of stress after they’ve been in the average home for a while. With a little know-how, you can turn the holiday beauties below into long-lasting houseplants, or move them outside to your summer garden.  

Poinsettias

The key to caring for poinsettias is knowing these colorful plants are tropicals, and that drafts will often cause them to lose leaves. Keep your poinsettia where the daytime temperature ranges from 65 to 70 degrees Fahrenheit, and move it to a spot about 60 degrees at night. Grow your poinsettia by a sunny window, but don’t let it touch the glass, where heat or cold can damage it.

Most of all, avoid over-watering. Wait until the soil feels dry before you water, and don’t leave water standing in the saucer or in any foil wrapped around the pot.

If the leaves wilt, and the soil gets dry to the touch, water your poinsettia right away. But remember: wilting or dropping leaves can also be a sign of over watering. If the soil is soggy when the leaves fall, you’ve probably watered too much. 

Poinsettias can stay attractive for months. But it’s tricky to get them to re-bloom – that is, unless you live in a subtropical area. Then you can transplant them to your garden in January, and let the natural changes in daylight trigger their color later in the year.

To coax your plant back into bloom, let it dry out gradually starting in April. Water just enough to keep the stem from shriveling, and put the plant in a spot that stays about 60 degrees Fahrenheit.

In mid-May, prune the stems to 4” high and repot the poinsettia in a slightly larger pot. Move it to a warm location with good light, and resume watering. When new growth emerges, fertilize every two weeks with a complete fertilizer.

In July, pinch back the stems. Pinch again in mid-August. Poinsettias need 10 weeks of 12 hours or less of sunlight each day to show color. For Christmas flowers, keep the plant in complete darkness from 5 p.m. to 8 a.m. daily, starting around Oct. 1.

This is too much work for most of us, so don’t feel bad if you compost your poinsettia after you’ve enjoyed it indoors. New plants are usually inexpensive.

Christmas Cactus

Like most holiday plants, Christmas cacti keep their blooms longer when they’re in a cool room. Give your plant bright, indirect light and keep it away from drafts and heat vents.

Despite their common name, Christmas cacti are succulents, and aren’t as drought tolerant as you might think. Water only when the top half of the soil is dry.

When the flowers fade, move your cactus to a sunny window, or put it outdoors for the summer in partial shade. When the temperatures drop in fall, start bringing the plant back in, gradually increasing the time it’s indoors to let it adjust to the lower light levels.

A true Christmas cactus needs 2 to 3 months to set blooms in time for the holiday. A Thanksgiving cactus needs about 6 weeks to bloom. Count backward from the appropriate holiday to know when to start your plant’s re-blooming cycle.

For Christmas flowers, stop watering in October and move the cactus to a cool spot (about 60 degrees at night) where it gets no more than 9 hours of light a day. Some people put a box over their plant each morning, and remove it at night. Water about once a week when the flower buds start to swell.

Amaryllis

Pre-packaged amaryllis are easy to grow. All you have to do is open the box, take out the pot, water and wait for flowers to appear. The blooms last longer in a cool room.

When the flowers fade, cut the stem back to two inches above the bulb, and put the plant in a sunny window. Water when the soil feels dry, and fertilize every 2 to 4 weeks with a water-soluble fertilizer.

Move your amaryllis outside in late May or early June, gradually giving it more sun. Water and feed as needed, but don’t re-pot. These bulbs like to be pot-bound.

Bring the bulb in before frost. It has to go dormant before forming new flowers, so keep it at 50 to 55 degrees Fahrenheit for 8 to 10 weeks. Don’t water or fertilize during this time.

To re-start the growth cycle, add a ½” of fresh soil to the pot and return it to a warm, well-lit room. Water once until new leaves appear. You may not get flowers every year; sometimes the bulb needs a couple of years to gather enough energy for them. Just repeat this cycle of care until flowers emerge, or – as with other holiday plants — compost the bulb and buy a new one.

Paperwhites

Pretty paperwhites are often forced to bloom at Christmas time in water or soil. If the stems threaten to fall over, tie them loosely to a small stake or twig using raffia or ribbon. Keeping the flowers in a brightly lit spot will help prevent weak stems.

Once the flowers open, move them out of direct light and into a cooler spot so they’ll last longer. If the bulbs are planted in soil, keep it lightly moist. If they’re in water, add more as needed.

Even when they’re transplanted to the garden, paperwhites seldom rebloom, having already used up all their energy during forcing. Toss them in the compost when they’re finished, or take a chance, if you wish, and plant them to see what happens.

Rosemary

It’s fun to grow fragrant rosemary indoors, especially when it’s trimmed to look like a miniature Christmas tree. To succeed with this herb, give it 6 to 8 hours of bright light each day, even if you need to supplement with artificial lights.

Water your rosemary only when the top of the soil feels dry, but don’t let it dry out completely. Drain any excess water to avoid root rot.

Rosemary can be tough to keep alive indoors, because it’s prone to attack by powdery mildew. Use a small fan, or keep the plant in a spot with excellent air circulation, to help avoid this disease.

You might prefer to transplant your rosemary to the garden, but wait until all frost has passed. It can grow outside year-round in frost-free regions. Rosemary needs soil that drains easily and full sunlight.

Bring your plant back in when the temperatures drop to 30 degrees Fahrenheit or below. If spider mites or other pests show up, spray with an insecticidal soap, but remember: don’t cook with or consume rosemary after it’s been treated with any kind of chemicals. Even if you can’t use it in the kitchen, it’s still a fragrant ornamental you’ll enjoy growing.

Cyclamen

While some cyclamen species are hardy to USDA zones 7 and up, most sold during the holidays are florist’s cyclamen, or Cyclamen persicum, and can’t survive below 50 degrees Fahrenheit. 

After your cyclamen finishes blooming, let the plant gradually dry out for 2 to 3 months to induce dormancy. You can move it outdoors then; there’s usually not much to look at, anyway, because the leaves often die by April. Turn the pot on its side or check it often so rainwater doesn’t accumulate and cause the tuber to rot. While the plant is dormant, repot it in fresh soil.

Start watering again when new growth appears, usually in September, and bring your cyclamen in before the temperatures drop to 50 degrees. Give it bright, indirect light and good humidity, and new flowers should eventually appear, although there may not be as many as before.

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