by Matthew Olson

The holiday season is coming to a close, and a new year has begun. If you’ve been to a garden center recently, you’ve likely seen the variety of plants that are sold as holiday plants to celebrate Christmas. The poinsettias are always popular, along with other favorites, such as Amaryllis and Thanksgiving Cactus. The Nursery growers have made sure these plants look their best during the weeks leading up to Christmas. Once the holidays are over, people often discard these plants because they no longer have blooms to enjoy. But with proper care, these plants can continue to be grown and flourish in your home for years to come. Today we’ll look at some of these plants and how to care for them the rest of the year.

My interest in gardening began in high school, and I was mainly just interested in growing vegetables, eventually I became interested in ornamental plants as well. The first houseplant I ever received was a Thanksgiving cactus from my high school biology teacher. I had no idea of how to care for it, and it promptly died from overwatering a few months later. But it was alive long enough for me to see it bloom for the first time, and those gorgeous red blooms gave me the motivation to try again and learn how to properly care for it.

Thanksgiving Cactus (Schlumbergera truncata) are very common in stores during the holiday season.  In most cases, stores refer to them as Christmas cactus because they are sold after thanksgiving and before Christmas.  The true Christmas Cactus (Schlumbergera x buckleyi) is rarely sold in stores, but many people still have true Christmas cactus that have been passed down among their families over the years. There is one more species of holiday cacti that is sold around Easter, the Easter cactus (Rhipsalidopsis gaertneri). The main differences between these three species of Cacti are the shape of the leaves and their bloom time.  Thanksgiving cacti are sold in stores because they naturally bloom during the weeks before Christmas, making it easier to sell them. They also have a more compact growth habit than true Christmas cactus and a wider range of flower colors as a result of hybridizing. All three of these species are very closely related and require similar care.  

Good Drainage and light are the most important thing to consider when caring for these cacti. While all three species are members of the cactus family, they are not native to dry desert areas.  In fact, they’re native to the tropical rain forests of Brazil, where there is no shortage of moisture. These Cacti grow in trees, and their roots are often exposed to the air around them, which allows their roots to be dry quickly between the daily rainfall.  They also don’t receive much sunlight under the canopy of the trees. When growing Thanksgiving Cactus as a houseplant, the plants should be placed in an area with bright indirect light, such as an east facing window.

During the summer months, they can be brought outside and put in a shady area. Too much sunlight will cause the leaves to turn a dark shade of red.  To avoid overwatering, allow the upper two inches of soil to dry before watering, and consider adding perlite to the potting mix to improve drainage. These cacti are tropical plants, so make sure to bring the cacti inside before the first frost in fall. Holiday Cacti are short day plants, which means they initiate flower buds when the days become shorter. These plants will often sense the shorter days without our help, but if you notice your cacti not blooming, you can move them to a dark area for 16 hours a day for roughly two weeks to stimulate flower production. After flowering has finished, water less frequently to allow the plants to rest. After six weeks, begin watering as normal as the soil begins to feel dry. These cacti are very rewarding to grow and really brighten up the house this time of year. You also may be rewarded with additional blooms during other times of the year. 

One of my other favorite flowers of mine this time of year is the Amaryllis. The Amaryllis is a large bulb native to Africa. It comes in a wide range of colors from white to pink and red. These bulbs are tender bulbs, which means they won’t survive our harsh winters outside. You can purchase them at nurseries from October until Christmas. Amaryllis are usually sold as unplanted bulbs. To plant them, use a container that is about an inch wider than the bulb with drainage holes and add enough soil to cover about half of the bulb, leaving the upper half visible. Once planted, place the bulb near a window with bright light, and make sure the bulbs receive water anytime the top two inches of soil is dry. The bulbs should flower 3-5 weeks later.  

After flowering, cut off the dead flowers to conserve energy in the bulb. Continue watering the bulb to allow the leaves to build up energy for the next bloom cycle. Keeping the bulb outside during the summer will help it continue to thrive. Before the first frost, bring the bulb inside to a cool dark place and allow the leaves to turn yellow and dry up. Stop watering the bulb for 2-3 months and leave it in that cool and dark area. After 2-3 months, move it to a warmer and brighter location to encourage growth and begin watering again. This is also a good time to fertilize with a fertilizer that contains primarily phosphorous, which is the middle number on the N-P-K ratio. If the bulb has enough energy to flower, it should produce blooms within 4-6 weeks.    

The most common holiday plant that people see this time of year is the Poinsettia. Poinsettias are shrubs that are native to Mexico. They have modified leaves called bracts that turn red when the days become shorter. Breeding efforts have created many varieties of poinsettias with a wide range of unique colors. After the holidays are over, people often discard their poinsettias, but with some care they can grow to become impressive houseplants. After Christmas, place your poinsettias near a window that receives bright light and continue watering when the top two inches of soil are dry. Make sure you’re inspecting the plants for insects during the winter as well. In early spring, you can clean up the plant by removing any dead foliage and cutting back the plant if it’s becoming leggy. Once the summer months begin, you can repot the poinsettia if it’s becoming rootbound and move it outside to an area that receives 4-6 hours of sun. In early September, begin moving the poinsettia back inside to an area with bright light. If you want to your poinsettia to have those red modified leaves at Christmas, mid-September is the time to begin giving the plant 16 hours of uninterrupted darkness each day to initiate the change of color in the leaves. A good place to put poinsettias to provide that darkness is a closet, basement or under a box. It’s important that the plants receive no light during these 16 hours, otherwise the process must start over. During the remaining 8 hours of the day, the plants should be in bright light. Continue giving the plants the darkness treatment until Thanksgiving, then put the plants in a bright sunny window, and cut back on watering. This will create those beautiful red bracts that make poinsettias unique looking plants.

These are just a few of the many plants that are grown and sold this time of year. I hope you’ll consider making them permanent plants for your home.