Holiday Houseplants

By Chandra Orr

October 11, 2013 6 min read

Bold poinsettia blooms sitting atop their lush green foliage. The tiny tropical flowers of a Christmas cactus hanging from their boughs like miniature bells. It's no wonder these seasonal plants are perennial favorites. They provide perfect pops of living color -- a welcome sight on dreary winter days. But they also make great year-round houseplants, and you don't need a green thumb to get gorgeous blooms year after year, just a bit of vigilance and a little luck.

*Christmas Cacti

Contrary to its name, the Christmas cactus is not a true cactus. Although drought-tolerant and sun-loving, these seasonal favorites are actually succulents, native to the jungles of South America. Like other succulents -- including jade plants and aloe vera -- the Christmas cactus favors steady, filtered sun and alternating periods of drought and plentiful water. Too little sunlight and your cactus is unlikely to bloom; too much sunlight and the leaves will burn. An eastern exposure is ideal. To encourage brilliant blooms year after year, follow these tips from Horticare.net:

--During the holidays. As a succulent, the Christmas cactus stores water in its waxy leaves, but in the winter the dry heat from furnaces and fireplaces can quickly sap its water reserves; so keep an eye on the soil. Water thoroughly when the top half of the soil feels dry. Be sure to remove any plastic or foil wrapping before watering to encourage proper drainage. Once the blooms fade, withhold water for six weeks to give the plant time to rest and rejuvenate.

--Spring. Christmas cacti require well-drained soil. When warmer weather appears, repot the plant using a soil blend designed for succulents (or create your own mix using equal parts garden loam, leaf mold and coarse sand). Resume cautious watering; too much water can lead to flabby stems, root rot and even death.

--Summer. Christmas cacti can be moved outdoors during warmer months, but take care to keep them out of direct sunlight, which can burn the leaves. To help offset the warmer temperatures and mimic the plant's natural tropical environment, water enough to keep the soil continuously moist.

--Fall. As the cooler months roll in, gradually ease back on the watering; provide only enough to prevent wilting. During October, cease watering altogether. This period of drought will help encourage blooms in time for the holidays. In November, you should see new flower buds forming. Gradually resume watering. If desired, add a high-potassium fertilizer every two weeks during blooming.

*Poinsettia

Like the Christmas cactus, poinsettias are tropical plants. Hailing from Mexico and Central America, these holiday bushes favor warm temperatures, plenty of sunlight and ample water. Unlike the Christmas cactus, however, these festive favorites can challenge even adept gardeners. It is possible to encourage new blooms each year, but there's no guarantee. For the best chance at success, follow these guidelines from the University of Vermont Department of Plant and Soil Science:

--During the holidays. Choose plants with small, tightly clustered yellow buds in the center and crisp, brightly colored leaves. Place the plant in a bright, sunny location free from drafts and sudden temperature spikes. Don't place it on top of a television or in front of the fireplace, for example. Water thoroughly, but only when dry; be sure to remove any decorative plastic or foil before watering to allow for proper drainage. Add an all-purpose houseplant fertilizer at the manufacturer's recommended intervals.

--Spring. As the blooms fade, remove the spent flowers and any dried leaves. Top off the plant with fresh soil, and continue watering and fertilizing as needed. If the branches grow long and leggy, trim them back to about 5 inches tall.

--Summer. When warm weather hits, repot the poinsettia in a larger container with a high-quality potting mix and trim 2-3 inches from each branch to encourage side growth. Move the plant outdoors, but avoid direct sunlight until the plant acclimates to the warmer, brighter growing conditions. Place the poinsettia on a covered porch or other area with steady indirect sunlight until July. At that point, move the plant into full sun. Trim again and provide water and fertilizer at increased intervals.

--Fall. Move the plant indoors around Labor Day. When new growth appears, reduce the use of fertilizer. About a month later, give the plant 13 hours of uninterrupted darkness and 11 hours of bright light each day. This strict schedule is the key to encouraging holiday blooms. To simulate the long night, place the plant in a dark closet, in the basement or under a box, and keep temperatures in the low 60s. During daylight hours, return the plant to a bright, sunny location and rotate daily to ensure even exposure. At Thanksgiving, discontinue the short-day/long-night treatment, and reduce water and fertilizer. With a little luck, you'll see new vibrant blooms by Christmas.

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