Holiday plants

In the Garden

Ralph Purkhiser, Purdue University Master Gardener

     Whether bought as a gift or as an addition to your own holiday decoration, the collections of holiday plants that have arrived in many stores and garden centers are certainly eye-catching.  Usually wrapped in bright-colored foil, the plants will require some attention if they are to survive through the holidays.

     Few plants like to have wet feet, so that foil presents a problem.  Beneath that foil is likely a plastic pot which is a less-than-ideal home for a plant.  If you only plan to use the plant as a holiday decoration, it may survive that long, if given some extra care.  Many more plants die from over-watering than from under-watering.  Feel the soil on your plant.  If the soil feels damp, do not water it.  Allow the soil to dry out before watering, then give it a good soaking, I suggest removing the foil or plastic when doing this.  Water a plant until water comes out the drainage hole.  Let it drain well and do not let the plant sit in the drained water.  You may then put the foil back on the pot if desired. 

     If the plant is in a pot with no drainage hole, extra caution is necessary to prevent over-watering.  One way to water such a plant is to just place a couple of ice cubes on top of the soil when the soil feels dry.  The ice will slowly melt, allowing the water to soak into the soil.  Using just one or two ice cubes controls the amount of water being added.

     I have dozens of houseplants, including several holiday plants.   I have Thanksgiving and Christmas cacti, numerous amaryllis bulbs and a spurge that turns colors in the winter months.  At our Hoosier Hillsides Master Gardeners Christmas dinner, I won a door prize of a potted poinsettia, as if I needed another one.  I also have several orchids that will bloom at various times.  With all of these plants, one would think I would be immune to the allure of purchasing the holiday plants being offered in the stores.  However, while I have resisted so far, I have been tempted by a couple of plants I have seen.

     I have seen some lovely cyclamens in bloom in a couple of stores.  Cyclamens are prized for their bright flowers, but are a beautiful foliage plant even when not in bloom.  Cyclamens are native to the Mediterranean area and Middle East.  There are 23 species in the genus, along with some hybrids.  A few of those are hardy and may be planted in the landscape in southern Indiana.  They make great rock-garden plants, as good drainage is essential to prevent the tubers from rotting.  However, most of the cyclamens one finds in stores at this time of the year are not hardy here and must be kept as houseplants.  These sub-tropical cyclamens generally have larger flowers than the hardy bulbs.  Flowers range from purple to red, pink, salmon and white, with some sporting double and fringed blooms.  The foliage is generally dark green with silver variegation.  Heart-shaped leaves are common, but some plants have scalloped leaves and irregular shapes.

     I would recommend transplanting the cyclamen into a terra cotta pot, which more accurately approximates the Mediterranean conditions.  Do not go with a pot that is much bigger than the original plastic pot, as cyclamens do best if slightly pot bound.  While some of the hardy cyclamens do best in shade, the potted plants want to be in bright indirect light.  They do not like to be too warm—liking temperatures around 50 degrees at night and 60 to 70 during the day.

     Many people simply discard cyclamen tubers when the foliage goes dormant.  However, while a bit of a challenge, it is possible to get the plant to return for another year.  The blooms may be smaller and less numerable, but still beautiful and can give the gardener a sense of accomplishment.


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