Archive for December, 2011

Every December poinsettias appear, like an invasion of Christmas colors wrapped in plastic. But where do they come from? You never see poinsettia seeds in garden catalogs, or little poinsettia seedlings for sale in nurseries. Do they get dropped off from UFOs or manufactured by Santa’s elves? Nope- they’re just a pain in the butt to grow at home.

The tricky part of growing poinsettias is getting those colored leaves (bracts, really) to be large enough and to appear at the right time. Poinsettias are extremely sensitive to light and temperature, which makes them easy to manipulate in a well controlled environment, and difficult to work with at home. Because commercial growers can control when the plants are at their peak, they can target specific sale dates, such as Thanksgiving weekend. Growers are also very concerned with growing plants that are the perfect height, which is why poinsettias usually look like alien clones of each other, except for their color.

When I say poinsettias are picky about lighting, some people start to think about another ubiquitous houseplant in grocery store floral departments, the Christmas cactus (Schlumbergera). Christmas cacti need long nights in order to bloom. I leave my Christmas cactus in the kitchen, where it sees an indoor light whenever I cook dinner, but it still reliably blooms starting at Thanksgiving and peaks a bit before Christmas. Coaxing big, colored bracts out of a poinsettia under the same conditions would be nearly impossible. They need uninterrupted dark periods, and growers are careful not to ever flick the lights on in their poinsettia greenhouses at night, even for a minute. They’ve been carefully bred to be able to handle all-day fluorescent lights without losing their coloring, once they hit grocery stores and garden centers.

I don’t generally buy poinsettias, mostly because I prefer plants that keep giving year after year, like amaryllis bulbs. I also find it more satisfying to watch a plant go through its whole growing cycle, like watching buds form on the Christmas cactus, or seeing the shoot on an amaryllis emerge and then keep growing taller and taller. If you have a poinsettia this year, remember that in Seattle you can toss the dirt and the plant into your city compost bins, and the plastic pot into your recycling bin.

Enjoy whatever holiday plants keep you happy, and have a merry Christmas!


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Last year I bought a little living Christmas tree instead of a cut tree, and it’s back in service for the 2011 holiday season. The tree only spent a few days in the house last year, and it successfully made it through the winter without any damage associated with coming out of dormancy from conditions inside.

Unfortunately, I didn’t treat it quite as well during the summer, and I let the soil dry out too often. It’s easy to forget that even though conifers in the ground don’t need much watering, potted trees need lots of water, since their branches prevent rain water from reaching the soil. The tree is mostly fine, but the pine needles on the lowest branches died, which might have happened even without the drought stress. I brushed off the dead needles and shook them out of the tree, and you can’t even tell there was a problem. I also left the tree near the house from January to June, and my tree started leaning away from the house and towards the sun, so now the top’s a bit crooked. I’m just going to pretend that being crooked gives the tree character, or possibly I’ll obsess over how to position it so that people don’t notice that it’s crooked.

It would be nice to enjoy the tree indoors for all of December, but the study I read last year tells us that living trees can’t handle indoor conditions for that long if they’re going to go back outside in January. I’ve compromised by putting the tree on my front porch for now to be part of our low-key Christmas light display. The lights on the tree easily disconnect from the rest of the light display, so we can haul the tree inside for one night during a holiday party, and then bring it in again for the week before Christmas. I might even hang a few of our sturdier ornaments on the tree while it’s on the porch. I haven’t been a fan of those glass balls since we got a dog with a wagging tail, anyway.

Is anyone else trying something exciting or different for your Christmas tree this year? If you’re getting a living Christmas tree and are trying to figure out how long to keep it inside, check out my post from last year, that summarizes what researchers have to say about it.

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