Nurseries are full of plants for decorating and gift giving in December.
There are poinsettias, amaryllis, Christmas cactus, cyclamen and primroses. Other holiday gifts available are potted plants such as Hardenbergia, camellias and daphne which provide blooms in winter.
Poinsettias (Euphorbia pulcherrima), are indigenous to Mexico. The first missionaries to Mexico loved this bright red plant and included it in their holiday ceremonies. It then became associated with Christmas.
A United States Ambassador to Mexico named Joel R. Poinsett, introduced the plants to America. In those early years poinsettias were only single flowered and red. Newer cultivars can be found in salmon, pink, cream, shades of red and even marbled colors in single, double and rose forms. Poinsettias are an evergreen, semi-evergreen or deciduous shrub that can grow as tall as 10 feet. The flower or showy part of the plant consists of petal-like bracts with yellow true flowers in the center. The plants bloom only after an extended dark period. They have a sticky milky sap and perform best outdoors in zones 13, 16-24.
If you purchase a holiday poinsettia, look for dense, healthy foliage. It should have tightly clustered bracts with the smallest leaves surrounding the yellow flowers to be fully colored. Avoid plants with yellow or greenish-white sagging leaves. If the plant has tiny yellow grains (pollen) on the leaves, this plant is not fresh. Keep the plant in bright, indirect light. They prefer cooler night temperatures and good water drainage. Many homeowners over water poinsettias, which will kill the plant. An arrangement of poinsettias in a group can make a beautiful holiday centerpiece.
Amaryllis (Brunsvigia rosea), usually arrive in stores in October. The bulbs are grown in a pot that is placed in a box for sale. Amaryllis are fun to watch grow. We called our plant “Jack” because it grew like ‘Jack in the Beanstalk’. The plants come in holiday colors of red, pink, white and variegated shades. This plant has a tall stalk (or stalks) and bell-shaped blooms. After the holidays, amaryllis can be planted in a semi-shady spot in your garden and will re-bloom once or twice a season.
Christmas cactus (Schlumbergera), is an old favorite. I remember my mother purchasing these in the grocery store during the holidays and moving them out to the patio in the spring. They have arching, drooping bright green branches that are scalloped, flat and smooth. They can have hundreds of three-inch long rosy-purple red blooms at Christmastime. They are easy to grow as long as they are kept in cool temperatures and exposed to indirect light. Like the poinsettia, they require about six weeks of darkness to re-bloom each year. My neighbors Christmas cactus is 4-years-old and is kept in her utility room where it gets indirect light and moisture. It thrives in this setting and during the holidays it sits in the middle of her kitchen table in full bloom
Cyclamen (Primulaceae), is one of my fall favorites. It is native to Europe, Asia and the Mediterranean area. The brightly colored flowers (red, pink, rose, white, and blends of each), grow on a clump of basil leaves. The blossoms look like shooting stars or butterflies. The cyclamen is grown from a tuber, which should protrude slightly above the soil level. Although cyclamen are seen in the fall grown in pots, they can be grown naturalized in rock gardens or as a carpet under camellias or rhododendrons. They love rich porous garden soil with humus and indirect sunlight. Most cyclamen go through a dormant period in the summer, reappearing in the fall as the weather cools. I decorate our front porch with red cyclamen in the fall. They are in assorted pots and planted in mass in a raised wrought iron planter. Occasionally, deadhead the spent blooms and you will have flowers until summer.
Primroses, also called Primula (Primulaceae), are also a cool weather, fall plant with many colors, including blues, lavenders, plus pink, rose, red and white. There are hundreds of species and named hybrids. They are native to the Himalayas and Southeast Asia and Europe. The plants grow in a rosette, sporting five petal flower heads that rise on stems above the leaves. The mild weather in Solano County promotes blooms for an extended period of time, especially if the plant is provided the right amount of moisture and sun protection. They thrive in organically-enriched, well-drained soil. They are prone to slug and snail damage. Primroses form tight clumps over the years that will eventually need to be divided (after bloom) to continue producing flowers.
Nurseries stock plants when in bloom to attract you. This month the above mentioned plants provide masses of color at nurseries and big box stores. Soon you will see winter plants being brought in ready to flower. If you are looking to add plants after Christmas, look for Hardenbergia, Camellias or Daphne.
Sharon Rico is a Master Gardener with the University of California Cooperative Extension office in Fairfield. If you have gardening questions, call the Master Gardener’s office at 784-1322.