Poinsettias start at Christmas, can last for months -- even years

12/24/2011 12:00 AM

12/26/2011 9:32 AM

Wrapped in foil and spilling over with colorful blooms, holiday plants arrive with a flourish.

Poinsettias, orchids, cyclamens; they instantly brighten dull winter days.

But how do you keep them happy – and thriving – after Christmas Day?

"So many people come into the nursery, pick up a poinsettia and say, 'Will it last until New Year's?' " said Joan Coulat of Capital Nursery in Sacramento. "That just floors me. Of course it will. It can last until Fourth of July – and then some."

Good drainage, bright light and a comfortable spot will go a long way toward preserving that living gift into 2012 and perhaps for many holidays to come.

"If you take care of them, poinsettias easily last all the way into February," said Earlene Eisley-Freeman, co-owner and retail manager of Eisley Nursery in Auburn. "You can keep them going into summer. Just put them out on the patio after the last chance of frost."

Eisley-Freeman knows her poinsettias. Her family's nursery – started by her grandmother, Lila Eisley – produces thousands of potted poinsettias each year.

"We start them in July," Eisley-Freeman said. "This season, we grew 17 varieties."

Of the hybrid poinsettias, Ice Punch – with cranberry and frosty-white patterned bracts – is the big hit.

"It's a best-seller," she said. "Ice Punch probably will be second to (traditional) red this year. Carousel (dark, ruffled red) is always popular and so is Fireworks (dramatic bright red)."

Orchids – especially the people-friendly phalaenopsis or moth orchid – have become a very popular holiday plant.

"They'll bloom for three months – easy," Coulat said. "That's why people love them. They make a nice gift."

While some blooming gift plants thrive indoors, others need to get outside – as soon as possible. Cyclamens, in particular, can't take the indoor heat.

"I love them, but they're not an indoor plant," Coulat said. "Only keep them inside for a day or two; otherwise, they rot. But outside in the shade, they'll come up year after year."

Coulat's family kids her about her long-lived poinsettias. But she's not joking about her holiday flowers' durability.

"My kids laugh at me," she said. "We think of them only as a Christmas thing, but I'll put the poinsettias on the table (as a centerpiece) for Fourth of July.

"Then, I'll take them outside and sink their pots in the ground. They like morning sun and afternoon shade. To be truthful, at that point, they're there. I'm tired of them. If they make it, OK. But I'll get more next year."

KEEP 'EM BLOOMING AND GROWING

Here are pointers to help your poinsettias and other holiday plants last long beyond Christmas:

Any holiday plant

Regardless of the plant, be sure to punch holes in the pot's foil cover, so water can drain into a saucer. Good drainage is essential for longer life.

Make the plant comfortable – not too cold or too hot. Keep the plant away from cold windows, warm or cold drafts from furnaces or air conditioners, or open doors and windows.

Give your plant plenty of bright but indirect light at least six hours per day. Fluorescent light works fine.

Don't fertilize while it's in bloom. If kept past the holiday season, apply a weak (half-strength) houseplant fertilizer once a month.

Poinsettia A tropical shrub native to Mexico and Central America, these holiday favorites do best at daytime temperatures of 65 to 70 degrees. High temperatures will shorten the plant's life.

The red bracts are actually modified leaves, not flower petals, but they'll retain their color long after the true flowers (small, yellow knobs at the center of the bracts) brown and wither.

Check the soil daily. Water the plant when soil feels dry to the touch; don't let it get soggy. Allow water to drain into the saucer and discard excess water. Wilted plants will tend to drop bracts sooner.

Although they can grow outdoors in many parts of California, poinsettias are not frost-tolerant and need protection. In perfect conditions, poinsettia shrubs can reach 10 feet tall.

How do you get a potted poinsettia to rebloom? Poinsettias need 14 hours or more of complete darkness each night for six to 10 weeks to trigger their color change. To trick into bloom, place a lightproof bag over the plant every night or put it in a closet.

Poinsettias aren't poisonous but their sticky sap can cause skin irritation or stomach upset. Keep away from cats.

For more tips, click on the Poinsettia Pages, http://urbanext.illinois.edu/poinsettia/index.cfm

Cyclamens Cyclamens can be kept blooming inside through March – in a drafty old house. They like a cool room (50-55 degrees at night, under 68 degrees during the day) with bright light and good air circulation. As each flower fades, remove the entire flower stalk. That prompts new flowers to emerge from its tuber.

The cyclamen tuber may rot if watered directly. Instead, place the plant in a saucer of water and let it soak up moisture.

Cyclamens actually grow much better (and easier) outdoors in Sacramento. Joan Coulat of Sacramento's Capital Nursery recommends getting gift cyclamens outdoors as soon as possible.

"Enjoy them Christmas Day, then get them outside," she said. "They're a perennial. Transplant it to a spot with morning sun and afternoon shade. It will die down to mush as the weather warms up in spring. But just wait. It will come up year after year, usually at the end of August, and bloom and bloom in winter."

Or you can keep the cyclamen in the pot, but place it outdoors in a shady spot. Let the plant go dormant. Then, after a new bloom cycle begins next fall, bring the plant back indoors to enjoy.

Amaryllis The easiest bulb to force into indoor bloom, this South American native comes in red, white, pink, salmon and orange as well as combinations.

"I love amaryllis," Coulat said. "I use the same plant indoors over and over again. The colors now are wonderful and the flowers last so long. They really love acid; use a lot of peat moss in your soil."

Plant the bulb halfway in a potting soil-peat moss mix with about 1 1/2 inches of the bulb above ground.

"Then start watering," Coulat said. "It will bloom six to eight weeks after you start watering. When the bloom fades, cut the stalk all the way down, at the top of the bulb. Then, the leaves come up."

Continue watering (usually once a week) and fertilize weekly for about three months. "Then, don't water," Coulat said. "That forces the bulb to go dormant. Next October, start watering again and it will bloom again at Christmas."

After bloom, amaryllis also can be placed outside in partial shade, but beware – snails love them. These pests may devour the leaves before they have a chance to store enough energy for next year's bloom.

Christmas cactus A native of Brazil, the sun-loving and easy-care zygocactus (Schlumbergera truncate) now comes in a rainbow of hues.

"The original hybrids had cherry red flowers," said Earlene Eisley-Freeman of Eisley Nursery in Auburn. "Worldwide hybridization has made a color palette of light pink, dark pink, salmon, fuchsia, white, red and yellow blooms available."

Zygocactus need dark nights to trigger bloom. "Christmas cactus will bloom naturally once a year around Christmas if kept in a cool spot (60-68 degrees) where there is no light during the night," Eisley-Freeman said. "Zygos set buds when the days start shortening."

Zygocactus like the soil to be kept moist, but not soggy. After bloom, reduce watering to give them a recovery period, she suggested.

Fertilize monthly with a liquid fertilizer (such as fish emulsion or Cactus Juice) except during bloom and just after blooming. Repot after flowering each year to replenish the soil's available nutrients.

Zygos can be kept outside in shady areas, protected from frost and hot afternoon sun.

"However, it is safer to keep them inside during our winter months just to make sure they will survive to bloom again year after year," Eisley-Freeman said.

Propagation is quite easy, best done during the spring and summer, she added. Carefully remove segments with at least three joints and allow them to dry for a few days. Push the bottom segment into soil, where it will root.

"Propagate different colors into the same pot for a great show of color," Eisley-Freeman said.

Orchids Moth orchids – phalaenopsis – have become one of America's favorite houseplants. They bloom for months with little care.

Don't overwater. In fact, they prefer to dry out thoroughly. Water once every three weeks.

They prefer a west window with bright but not direct sunlight and temperatures in the low 70s. They like 50 percent humidity; a sunny spot in kitchen or bathroom is ideal.

Phalaenopsis are among the few orchids that will rebloom in home conditions. If the stem (or flower spike) is still green and healthy, it may generate more flowers, especially in summer. The spike should be cut between the scar that's left by the first flower and the last node (that little lump) on the stem. One of the lower nodes will then produce flowers within eight to 12 weeks. If the stem turns all yellow or brown, cut it off and start again.

Four to six weeks of cooler temperatures – 55 to 60 degrees – triggers flowering. In winter, place the plant close to a north-facing window or in an enclosed porch. Or just turn off the heat while on vacation. Remember: The orchid still needs indirect light.

Anthurium A symbol of Hawaii, these tropical plants are beloved for their heart- or arrow-shaped leaves and contrasting red or yellow flowers, which last for weeks. They make exceptionally long-lived houseplants. Treat like an orchid.

Peace lily A rising star among holiday plants, peace lily (Spathiphyllum) has spade-like white flowers and attractive, glossy green foliage. As a houseplant, it's practically indestructible, said Eisley-Freeman.

"They tell you when they need a drink (by wilting)," she said. "They can go flat and still come right back."

Bromeliads Their colorful foliage make them very festive for the holidays. And it's the houseplant that keeps on giving.

"You get one generation after another in the same pot," Coulat said. "The mother plant will last about three months. Then, cut it off. It will be surrounded by 'pups' that will then grow."

Water in the center of the plant's central "cup," its whorl of leaves. "That's the key to success with bromeliads," Coulat said.

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