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Houseplants for Christmas


Christmas cactus

Plants, one way or another, play a big part in our Christmas festivities and gift giving. I can’t think of any other holiday when plants are so important. We decorate our houses with evergreen wreaths, and deck our halls with holly. Or at least with laurel ropes, evergreen boughs and swags, and forced bulbs on the festive table.

We also give plants as gifts, and may also receive a potted plant. The question is how can we choose a gift plant, or care for a plant we never imagined taking up residence on our windowsill? The answer is the same as it is for a plant in the garden. We have to know what the plant needs in terms of light, water and heat, and where in the house those needs will be met most easily.

When choosing a gift houseplant consider the home of the recipient. Is the house or apartment very warm or cool? In my house the downstairs is quite warm in winter because we have a woodstove and solar gain. Cooler at night, of course. The upstairs bedroom is cool during the day and much cooler at night. How bright or sunny is the house? Different plants have different light requirements from tolerant of low light, to bright but not sunny, to long hours of sun.

Choose your plants with those conditions in mind. The poinsettia is a tropical plant that requires four hours of sun, with daytime temperatures between 65 and 70 degrees, and nighttime temperatures 10 degrees cooler. This iconic Christmas flower has the advantage of coming in a range of colors and having a long period of bloom. The ‘flowers’ are actually bracts that will easily give a month of color. People do carry poinsettias through their dormant period to bloom another year, but most consider the poinsettia a living bouquet, and toss it without a pang when it begins to shed bracts and foliage.

A glamorous Christmas houseplant is the amaryllis or Hippeastrum. White Flower Farm offers a huge selection of large amaryllis bulbs, but you can buy these at local garden shops. They come in a full range of colors from pale white to rich red, and even candy-striped. They often come potted up ready to wake up and start growing once they are watered and placed in a bright, warm (70-80 degree) room. They need to be watered when the top inch of soil is dry.

After amaryllis bloom, they can be carried over by cutting off the flower stalks and putting the plant in a bright cool 50 degree room. Leave the foliage to gather strength for another bloom period, just as you leave daffodil foliage. When the weather is warm the potted plant can be put outside. In the fall, cut back the foliage and store the bulb, without watering, in a cool dark space like a basement for at least eight weeks. Then the bulb can be repotted and brought into a bright room. When growth begins you water the bulb and carry on as before.

Yes, amaryllis can be carried over, or as with any gift plant, you can chuck it, or make it a gift to a friend who is a patient gardener.

Two plants that need very little care are the Thanksgiving (Schlumbergera truncata) and Christmas cactus (S. bridgesii). These two succulents are very similar, but the stem segments of S. truncata have points rather than the scalloped stem segments of the Christmas cactus. Both are available is shades pale and bright.

Christmas cactus bought now will probably be in bud or bloom that will last for a month or more. It is a cactus but needs bright light, not sun. While it does need to be watered, less harm is done by underwatering, than by overwatering. This is true of most houseplants. Christmas cactus stems will begin to soften or shrivel slightly if the plant has been underwatered, and will recover quickly when watering is resumed.

Once they have bloomed these houseplants can live in a sunny room, and live outside in light shade in the summer. They can be given a little fertilizer for flowering plants. Buds will set in the fall when nighttime temperatures dip to 55 degrees. Christmas cactus is so easy to maintain that it can be handed down from mother to daughter.

One of my favorite holiday plants is the cyclamen. Cyclamen is a cool weather plant so it loves my cool rooms. This is not a plant for an overheated apartment! I bring my cyclamen into the social area for brief celebratory occasions. The blossoms, white or pink, dance like butterflies above the heart shaped foliage. Water carefully around the edges of the pot so the corm does not become waterlogged and rot. Fertilize every two or three weeks with a soluble fertilizer for blooming plants.

The biggest challenge in carrying a cyclamen plant over is keeping it cool enough. When the bloom period is over the plant goes into dormancy. The foliage will dry and fall off. Repot the corm in a slightly larger pot, and put it outside for the summer in a shady spot. Do not overwater. By the end of the summer new growth should have started. Fertilization can resume when buds are set. It is hard to say exactly when a carried over cyclamen will bloom, but if it comes out of dormancy you should be assured of another bloom season. Just remember. Keep it cool.

Of course there are many other houseplants available for gift giving, but any of them will give pleasure throughout the holiday season and beyond if you keep their needs in mind when making a choice.

Between the Rows   December 7, 2013



Foliage Follow Up – January 2012

Orchid cactus

I rarely participate in Foliage Follow-up, but Pam Penick at Digging has prompted me to take a good look at the foliage around me at this time of the year.

I have owned this orchid cactus (Epiphyllum) for a number of years. I pay almost no attention to it which is shameful, because it would bloom regularly and magnificently if I did. You can see I don’t even give it the pedestal it deserves. For the past year it has lived in a bright rarely heated guest room where it seems happy even if it doesn’t bloom.

I am making a new year’s resolution to prune it back and repot it in the spring.  I think I will go upstairs and prune it this very morning.

I do have other succulents. Thanksgiving and Christmas cactus which are among the easiest plants to grow.  They even tell you when they need watering. Before any serious damage is done to the plant the succulent ‘leaves’ will begin to shrivel slightly and feel limp. It just takes regular watering to bring it back into fine fettle.

Christmas cactus, Schlumbergera bridgesii

This particular Christmas cactus lives in my bedroom, right next to a plump jade tree.

Jade tree, Cassula ovata

This jade tree is over 20 years old. My daughter cared for it during the two separate years we were living in China. She is as reluctant to prune as I am, and it grew so much more heavily on one side that the plant was leaning so dangerously that she propped up the stem with a small flower pot.  I finally did prune it  so that it was not only more attractive, but safer in its pot. Then a couple of years ago I left it right next to a north window in our unheated Great Room for the winter and I thought I had killed it for sure. It never got watered and became shrivelled and frozen, but I resurrected it in the spring when I gave it a radical pruning and watered it on a regular schedule. The leaves are now fat and healthy, if a bit dusty.

This citrus scented geranium is another plant I have had for several years. Still full of life, but another plant that is in serious need of pruning and repotting. Next month. I promise. I will also be able to take cuttings and start raising another generation.

Scented geranium roseScented geranium foliage takes many different forms. Check the online catalogs like Hobbs Farm and Logee’s Greenhouse to see the full range. Scented geraniums do produce small flowers, but it is the scented foliage that is the appeal.

Prostrate rosemary

This prostrate rosemary did beautifully in its pot out on the entry walk all summer where it is hot and sunny. I brought it in and put in in the south window of the unheated Great Room which did go down below freezing yesterday, but it still looks fine. Unlike my upright rosemary which got nipped by cold in the Great Room earlier in the season and which I am trying to revive in a warmer, but still cool, room.

This is what foliage looks like outdoors this morning. I am glad for the snow cover before temperatures plummeted. Four degrees above zero this morning.

Pam, thank you so much for Foliage Follow-Up.


Bloom Day, January 2012

This Bloom Day is the coldest day of the winter so far. -4 degrees at 7 am. Still I have a few blooms to enjoy. This Christmas cactus is becoming quite magnificent and sits in the corner of our bedroom where it is one of  the first things I see when I wake up.

We are still a little disorganized from the nearly completed work on our kitchen so this Christmas cactus is sitting it out in the Sitting Room which is on a separate heating zone and very cool.  The small white cyclamen behind it that I bought for Christmas is really enjoying the cool temperatures.

The real surprise is this fuschia. I bought it in the spring and planted it along with a colcasia (elephant’s ear). I was potting them up in my new potting shed when I knocked a bag of perlite on top of the fuschia and broke off the main stem. I was so annoyed with myself, but planted what was left anyway. It took at least half the summer but new shoots appeared and finally in the fall it produced these blossoms. We had a long mild fall but finally I brought the pot in, minus the colocasia which had not done very well because I think our hilltop is just too cool. The fuscia continue to bloom in our unheated Great Room where it gets lots of sun, but very cool. This morning it is just about 32 degrees and the heat has automatically come on. The fuschia has been our great winter surprise.

For more blooms around the country visit clever Carol who thought up this great idea at May Dreams Gardens.

The view outside this morning

Blogoversary Giveaway

Succulent Container Gardens by Debra Lee Baldwin

On December 6, the Feast of St. Nicholas, I will celebrate my Fourth Blogaverary! It wasn’t an ideal time to start a garden blog, but I had just learned about blogs and ‘met’ Kathy at Cold Climate Gardening, Carol at May Dreams Gardens and all the Ranters at Garden Rant. I was lucky to meet such stars early on because they have taught me so much and continue to inspiremme.  I even got to meet them all at at the last two Garden Blogger Flings.

And of course the greatest gift I gave to myself that December 6th, was the opportunity to meet so many knowledgeable gardeners from all over the country. They all have something to teach me, new ideas, new perspectives and new resources. I thank the entire community of garden bloggers for their generosity in sharing with me – and with all their readers.

This year Timber Press and I are celebrating by offering a Giveaway – Debra Lee Baldwin’s new and fabulous book, Succulent Container Gardens: Design Eye Catching Displays with 350 Easy Care Plants. Debra opened up a whole new world of succulents to me – which is wonderful because these easy care plants may be the only houseplants I can keep going for more than a year or two. While I have a large jade tree, orchid cactus and Christmas cactus, I am now ready to create what people in my area call a ‘dish garden’, a container planted with a variety of succulents. I never knew there were so many, and that you could fit so many into a beautifully photographed book. Plant porn!

Besides design ideas, and ways of thinking about design, Debra gives information about some of the most interesting and unusual succulents, and basic care information. This informative and inspiring book could be yours. Just leave a comment on this post by December 6 at midnight.  On December 7 I will draw a name at random and will announce the winner. If you wanted to leave a sentence or two about your experience with a succulent that would be wonderful, but all you have to do is leave a comment saying you want this book.

The Roses at the End of the Road

IN ADDITION I will include a copy of my own book, The Roses at the End of the Road which was only the barest seed of an idea when I began my blog. These essays are not about How To grow roses, but how I live among the roses in my rural community. My husband provided the charming illustrations.

I have been having a wonderful time signing my book at local events, and will be reading and  signing at Boswell’s Books in Shelburne Falls on December 4 at 2 pm, and signing at Tower Square in Springfield right next to the festival of Trees on December 6 – my blogoversary!  I even got to show off many of my roses when I gave a talk at the Massachusetts Horticultural Society, focusing on disease resistant roses.

Leave a comment and enter the Giveaway!


Bloom Day – December 2010

It isn’t quite Christmas so it is no surprise that the Christmas cactus (Schlumbergera bridgesii) is mostly fat pink buds. As usual my angelwing begonia has a very few pink blossoms. Along with my dependable and ever blooming abutilon these plants are now in our bedroom in the beneath the west window, but very near the south window. This room is very bright during the day, and very cool at night. We had to move plants from the guest room because we have been trying to fix a leak in the dormer roof for months.  We removed the moldy plasterboard and the wet insulation giving us a view of wooden slats and the metal roof that is sometimes icy these days, even on our side of the roof.  The roof only leaks when it rains hard and the wind comes from a certain direction so we cannot finish the interior until we are absolutley  certain we have made a good repair and we are not. Absolutely certain. So the room is really too cold for plants and we keep that door closed.

My Thanksgiving cactus (Schlumbergera truncata)  is a very Christmasy color and it is still giving us quite a show.  You can see the little ‘barbs’ on the foliage that give this cactus its common name, Crab cactus.

As I said the abutilon, or parlor maple, is always blooming. It is a dependable plant as the holiday cactuses. Cacti?

Even though I do not have many flowers blooming in my house right now, it is the season for friendships and good will to bloom throughout the family and the community with Tuba Christmases, Moonlight Magics, Nutcrackers and carolling. And latkes. I never like to forget the latkes.   The seeds for some new friendships were sown this summer when I met 70 other garden bloggers in Buffalo, including the wise and funny Carol of May Dreams Gardens who hosts this Bloom Day. Please visit and see what else is in bloom around the country.

And for the friends of this blog you have a chance to win a great book about perennial blooms if you click here and leave a comment.

Thanksgiving Continues

Thanksgiving cactus

Thanksgiving cactus

My Thanksgiving cactus (Schlumbergera truncata) had just barely started to open on Thanksgiving day, but it is in full bloom right now. It will have passed its moment of glory by Bloom Day, so I continue to give thanks in the here and now.

I’ve had people tell me their Thanksgiving cactus or Christmas cactus never bloom at the proper season, but that is usually because they have misidentified their plant. The Thanksgiving cactus ‘leaf segments’ have little points on each segment. This has sometimes caused them to be called crab cactus.  the ‘leaf segments of the Christmas cactus (Schlumbergera bridgesii)  are more rounded.

I have never had an Easter cactus (Rhipsalidopsis gaertneri) which is a whole different family, but very similar in every other aspect except bloom time.  All of them are very easy to propogate. A single leaf segment can be stuck in a pot of damp sandy soil, kept in bright light but out of the sun for a couple of weeks and you’ll be able to see new growth. I’ve knocked a leaf off the plant and had it fall and root right in the original pot. It is important not to overwater these succelents at any point in their life cycle.

Once you’ve got a ‘holiday cactus’ you’ll be able to keep it going for decades, and give away many little plants to admiring friends.

Today is December 3 which means there are just about 60 hours left before the drawing closes on my celebratory Giveaway, Nan Ondra’s helpful new book The Perennial Care Manual, and lots of CowPots to get you off to a good start in the spring.  The drawing will be on December 6, the second anniversary of this blog.

Will She or Won’t She?

My Thanksgiving cactus has been budded for weeks and I thought she would be blooming right on time. But right on time is tomorrow!  I’m inviting her into the warm room of the house today.  I should have thought of that earlier.

There is no question that this calendar will prompt me to get everything done on time. This beautiful calendar prepared by the University of Massachusetts Extension Service has 12 gorgeous photos of plants, exotic, common and useful and tips about the timing of garden chores. There is room to write in some of your own reminders.

I like the first page of the calendar which lists attractive plants for pollinators at every season. Sometimes we forget that bees and other pollinators need shrubs and trees as well as the perennials that put in our gardens.

The calendar makes a great gift. To order go to or send $12 payable to UMass and mail to: Garden Calendar, c/o Mailrite, 78 River Road South, Putney, VT 05346.

Happy Thanksgiving to all.

Holiday Cactus

Thanksgiving cactus

Thanksgiving cactus




            Flowers are a part  of the festive holiday decorations.  Some are even named for the holidays. Thanksgiving and Christmas cactus bloom in shades of white, pink and red all through the holidays. They are hardy plants needing very little care, but it is important to remember that even though we call them cactus, they are not desert plants.

Thanksgiving and Christmas cactus are actually a part of the Schlumbergera family, natives of moist tropical forests. They are succulents but need to be watered from spring until fall. Let them dry out between waterings.

Neither do these cactus need direct sun.  In the tropical forest they would be shaded. The ideal location indoors is a cool room with bright indirect light..

I put my plants outside for the summer. They get plenty of water and filtered light on our piazza. I don’t bring them in until mid-September or when I start to fear a frost. Cool autumnal temperatures cause them to set flower buds even if they don’t get 12 or more hours of dark at night which is the usual advice.

When I bring them in I keep them in unheated bright rooms that are not much used, and therefore dark when the sun goes down.  This regime brings them into bud at exactly the right season.

My red Thanksgiving cactus, Schlumbergera truncata,  also called the crab cactus because of the sharper toothed stem segments, is well budded right now. My Christmas cactus, S. bridgesii, has smooth rounded leaf segments and a deep pink flower. It has set tiny buds that will bloom after the Thanksgiving cactus.

There is also an Easter cactus that looks similar but it is Rhipsalidopsis gaertneri and blooms in the spring. It may produce flowers at the joints of stem segments as well as at the stem ends.  Its cultural requirements are also pretty much the same.

Once the buds have set, the biggest threat to blooming is temperatures that go above 70 degrees, causing the buds or flowers to drop.

All these plants can be repotted in the spring after they have bloomed. A good soil mix should include 1 part potting mix, 1 part perlite and 2 parts peat moss. Some people have good success using an African violet potting mix.

Stem cuttings can be rooted anytime except when the plants are blooming. I’ve had new plants take root when I haven’t noticed that a stem segment has broken off and fallen into the pot; this plant is among the easiest to propagate .

There is something very satisfying for the indoor gardener to have a large Schlumbergera with its arching branches and brilliant flowers with so little effort.

Even though it does not bloom during the winter holidays, I’m going to mention the orchid cactus, or epiphyllum. This is a magnificent plant, much larger than the other plants I have discussed here. The heavier fleshier stem can be three feet or longer, but can be controlled by judicious pruning.  Mine has bloomed sporadically at different times. I just recently had a few blossoms, but mostly it blooms out on the piazza in the summer.

The orchid cactus is also a native of the tropical jungle and has all the same requirements as the other tropical cactus..

 Last week I wrote about forcing hardy bulbs, and a reader asked me how to force amaryllis. Amaryllis bulbs are sold around this time of year, already conditioned, in order to bloom in big glamorous glory during the holidays. Each bulb will produce two or three, or even four gorgeous trumpet shaped blooms.

Amaryllis are more expensive than hardy bulbs, but they can be successfully carried over to bloom again indoors.

The bulb is large, and it is good to choose a firm good sized bulb, if you have that choice.  Many garden centers sell the bulbs with a pot that is all ready to go.  Even though the bulb is large, it should be given a pot that is only a little larger than the bulb, allowing about a half inch all around. Amaryllis like being potbound.

Potting soil for amaryllis should include some compost and perlite.

Fill your pot about half to three quarters full of your potting mix, set in the bulb and add more mix, firming it well, but leave the upper half  or third of the bulb exposed.  Watering will help settle the potting mix, and you may find you need to add a little more.

Amaryllis like to be warm (70 to 75 degrees) in a sunny location with at least four hours of direct sun a day. When it is in bloom a slightly cooler location will help the flowers last longer

Depending on the variety, the bud will present itself first.  Whenever the bud appears make sure to keep rotating the pot so that the flower stalk will not lean towards the light.  Amaryllis flower stalks are strong and no staking is needed.

During this growth and blooming period amaryllis should be watered  well, as soon as they are dry, and fertilized every two weeks.

After blooming the flower stalk should be cut off near the top of the bulb.  As with all bulbs the foliage should be left to gather new strength in the sun, because they can bloom again after a period of dormancy.  I’ll revisit this after Christmas. 

November 15, 2008