If your thoughts turn to holly or mistletoe when the subject of holiday vegetation is raised, you can be forgiven. Who doesn’t have memories of holly’s red berries woven into traditional Christmas decorations or hearing stories of people kissing under the mistletoe?
But there are also those very popular, usually potted plants, that often are gifts to teachers and friends.
They include amaryllis, Christmas cactus, paperwhites and poinsettias. Except for Christmas cactus, the plants normally bloom during summer but are easily forced by gardeners and growers to bloom during the holiday season.
“They make wonderful Christmas gifts because like other plants, they help to clean the air in the house, are pretty, usually affordable and will last for years if well taken care of,” says Darren Sheriff, a Master Gardener who lives in North Charleston.
Amaryllis are elegant flowers, says Louise Thackeray, owner of the Charleston Flower Market.
Amaryllis, some of which have Dutch origins and others South American, are forced to bloom now but will bloom again during its natural season, she says. Just let it die and it will come back from the bulb naturally.
“They’ll be blooming in July and August when everything else looks tired,” Thackeray says.
The ones being purchased or that have been forced by gardeners are flowering and will continue to flower into February, she says. People usually give ones that have buds or are blooming.
“We get a green, a white, a dark red, regular red, hot and light pinks and apple blossom,” says Thackeray. “We’ve also got a beautiful peach this year.”
She suggests watering the plant once or twice a week. They already will have the nutrients they need to grow from their foliage.
Thackeray says after the last frost, around March 15, they can be left outside.
Paperwhites are popular for Christmas for several reasons, says Sarah Petrowski, a buyer at Hyams Garden Center.
“One is nostalgia,” she says. “People remember their grandmothers’ paperwhites.”
Also, they are inexpensive, white and easy to force.
“There is a love-hate relationship with paperwhites,” Petrowski says. “People either love or hate their pungent fragrance. But they all love the way they look.”
To force paperwhites to bloom for the holidays, take them out of the peat moss they come in and begin to chill the bulbs in mid-October by placing them in a brown bag in the refrigerator crisper, away from fruit that will give off gases. Then plant them in pots in mid-November to bloom for the holidays. Or you can purchase ones that already have been forced.
Paperwhites bloom for up to three weeks, she says. Once they stop blooming, cut back the bloom spikes but keep the foliage.
They can be taken outside and planted in the garden or stored to force again next fall.
If you want to grow paperwhites in the garden (ones that were forced on top of soil, on rocks or in water, plant them up to the foliage, Petrowski says. If you acquired them in a pot, already forced and buried in soil, bury them flush in the garden.
They take partial to full sun for three to four hours a day, Petrowski says. They will bloom early the second spring after planting.
Or if you want them for next Christmas, let the foliage die back naturally and the bulb will become dormant. Set the bulbs in pots somewhere shady and dry, or put them in dried peat moss until you are ready to force them again next fall.
Christmas cactus is found in a range of colors such as lavender, fuchsia, orange, yellow and white, says Sheriff, a tri-county Master Gardener.
“The fuchsia one is usually the more common, but interest in the lavender and white have started to pick up.”
They usually start blooming around Thanksgiving and continue into January, Sheriff says. They are moderate growers.
Christmas cactuses prefer dappled sunlight, so those growing them should keep them near an east window while indoors, Sheriff says. When any chance of frost has passed and the plants are brought outside to grow, hang them in a tree, where they can get dappled sunlight.
The plants like fairly moist soil but will tolerate some drought, Sheriff says. They can be fed in the spring with a slow-release fertilizer whether the pot is outdoors or indoors.
The only bug problems Sheriff has seen are mealy bugs and spider mites, he says. Remove the mealy bugs with cotton swabs and use a miticide on the spider mites.
“They make great hanging baskets because they have got that weeping effect,” Sheriff says.
Poinsettias grow as shrubs in Mexico and hedges in Southern California, says Mary Ann Johnson, volunteer coordinator at Magnolia Plantation and Gardens.
The poinsettias are in the latex family, says Johnson, who has grown them. Those who have cut one may have noticed a white milky substance that leaves a grayish stain on their hands and clothing.
“You can wash it off of your hands, but it does not come out of your clothes,” she notes.
Joel Roberts Poinsett, a Charlestonian, introduced the native Mexican plant to the United States. Poinsett, the first U.S. ambassador to Mexico, found the plant growing on the country’s hillsides in 1825. He sent several back to South Carolina.
Those growing poinsettias frequently overwater them, Johnson says. Too much water causes leaf drop, and too little water causes leaves to turn yellow.
“Poinsettias do not tolerate temperatures below 40 degrees, so keep them warm,” Johnson says.
If the plant survives the holidays but looks a bit puny, gardeners can cut its little branches and wait for it to come back, she says. The plant can be repotted and placed outside once the danger of frost has passed. Fertilizing a poinsettia will prompt it to grow into a lush plant in late summer. But it should be kept in a shaded area until acclimated to the outdoors, or it may burn.
The part of the poinsettia that is colored is the leaf, not the flower, Johnson says. Its flower is the tiny yellow part that falls off.
Post and Courier garden columnist Toni Bertauski offers this advice for keeping poinsettias going for another holiday season:
Place the poinsettia in an indoor spot that gets at least six hours of indirect sunlight. Keep the plant away from drafts and heating ducts. They like temperatures between 60 and 70 degrees.
Water properly, but allow the poinsettia to dry in the upper few inches of soil to avoid root rot.
In May, cut the plant’s stems to about 4 inches from the soil and repot, if desired.
Start fertilizing on a standard foliage plant schedule.
Once outdoor temperatures remains above 60 degrees, you may put the plant outdoors for diffuse sunlight.
Around July, start pinching back the stems to thicken; leaving four to five leaves per stem.
To get a return of color, put poinsettias in a dark place, such as a closet, or cover them with a box, 5 p.m.-8 a.m. daily.
Begin covering in early October and expect the color to return by mid-November.
The poinsettia’s predators are spider mites and mealy bugs, says Magnolia’s Johnson.
She recommends consulting a Master Gardener, Clemson Extension or a gardening center for advice on getting rid of them.
Reach Wevonneda Minis at 937-5705.