From The Garden of Ed. Submitted for publication in The Towne Crier on December 14, 2005

Holiday Plant Giving.

A splash of holiday cheer in the form of a box of candy or a bottle of wine is always appreciated, but disappears rather quickly. A blooming plant on the other hand carries on for quite a while. There are several to choose from at this time of the year. I've seen some retain their vigor and color well into Easter season, and then I had requests on how to get them to rebloom for next winter. What I'm suggesting is that a living plant in blossom is a very welcome gift (or treat for yourself) and is not so complicated as one might suspect.

There are many common, and not so common, holiday plants available at this time of year. I'll concentrate on show-stoppers. These first three are rescuable for another performance in the following year. Some trouble, but doable.

The Poinsettia, now available in brilliant crimson, as well as, cream, pink, artisan mottling, and new variations, is a dramatic single plant entry into anyone's home and a focal point for visitors and inhabitants. Easy to care for, it will endure with a little diligence well into spring, even after it casts off its colorful bracts. Available in all sizes from the diminutive to the three footer, three feet wide take-your-breath-away statement. Simply striking! Keep it draft free, if possible, evenly moist, room temperature is fine and a little cooler at night, bright light during the day. It will perform beyond your expectations.

Another beauty, the Amaryllis, with its mammoth bell-shaped blooms several inches wide, is durable, and usually produces several more flowers to follow the ones that begin to fade. Just remove the older ones, like dead heading, and another is right behind it. Also, a variety of spectacular colors and blends. Search around for the more unusual ones, or be content with the classic and beautiful deep red that is the season's color of choice. A couple of years ago, I received one called 'Apple Blossom'. It was whiish with pink stripes, was long lasting, and really different. A joy to all who saw it. For care, water when beginning to dry, provide bright light during the day and room temperatures are fine.

Third up is the Christmas cactus. It's not a cactus at all, has some close relatives known by the common names of Thanksgiving cactus and Easter cactus. It is actually a plant of the jungle. Truth is these are all succulents. None have sharp, stinging barbs or needles, even though on a cursory look, they appear to. At this time of year you're likely to find both Christmas cacti and Thanksgiving cacti. Look for Zygo cacti. There are some colors that rival any artist's palate. A good candidate. Same care as above. Easy.

The next four candidates are different in another way. Like their predecessors, they provide color, drama, the freshness of spring in the middle of the coldest part of the year, and even fragrance in one particular case. And, their festive appeal suits the holidays perfectly. They are not, as a rule, plants that can return to this glorious state the following year. They are, or should be, regarded as temporary treats. That is, disposable, by all but the most cantankerous and stubborn who refuse to see a plant die and will find a way for it to please again. I confess, I'm one of these, but the trouble is great. And, not to be foisted on the innocent recipient of a lovely gift. Enjoy it until it is spent and, if it pleases the giver, compost it for the future benefit of other growing things. There is satisfaction in promulgating the recycling ethic.

Foremost of these is the 'Paperwhite Narcissus' grouping of forced bulbs, with a fragrance that sends most skyward, or heavenward, or, for those intolerant, into the pits of some nether land, so allergic are they. These bulbs are not hardy in the northeast and will not survive if planted out in the spring. Enjoy them for their magnificent aroma and beautiful snow white foil to what may be outside the window. Then discard them, or, more ecologically in tune, compost them.

Fragrant and colorful Chrysanthemums are always a treat and are now available year round. Those available in the winter are tender ones that are forced by controlling light and temperatures. They are quite durable indoors in a cool spot and will continue to please for several weeks. Is the candy gone, yet? I'll bet the wine is! Diehards like myself may not be able to resist cutting them back after blossoms die, keep cool and moist in moderate sun, and hope to reflower them next year. It's almost futile, but a worthy effort to the diehards. The compost heap is waiting.

Another beautiful, showy and colorful forced plant is the tender (read 'Southern') Azalea. Florists and other retailers of gift plants have lots of these, and are a very worthwhile investment in giving a gift of winter affection. Again, kept in a cooler spot and not allowed to completely dry, they will perform for many weeks. When the times comes, do what your heart tell you to do.

Another colorful addition to the smaller, but brilliant and sturdy plants to grace a table or sidebar, is the Kalanchoe. A succulent, this fleshy leafed, brightly colored flowering plant only requires watering when it is fairly dry. Not as fussy about temps and drafts, it does ask for a bright spot.

Finally, there are a lot others worthy of gift giving that provide the warmth of color and texture in this cold and dark season. From the humble African violet, the its large and showy cousin, the gloxinia. I'll simply list some other suggestions: Rieger and rex begonias, orchids, bromeliads, dwarf orange, Jerusalem cherry, cyclamen, topiaries and clivia. Almost all of these can be found in peak shape and ready to hand off to a favorite friend or relative. Potted herbs and other green and growing houseplants offer the promise of bringing the outside inside for a spell, even if absent of blossoms. Don't overlook the fragrance emitted by a brushed herb. Splendid!

The remainder of my column consists of a few hints and suggestions to help you choose what plants to purchase and how to make them survive for as long as possible.

Firstly, when you are attracted to a plant for gifting or bringing home for yourself, examine it carefully. See if it has any unwelcome guests, ie. insect pests, webbing, soft bodied critters hiding in leaf axles, harder bodied scaly bumps resembling the stem in color, but conspicuously different, or green or yellowish soft insects commonly known as plant lice (aphids). I always have to put on my reading glasses to investigate for hidden passengers. You do not want to import insect pests into your or your giftee's home. Pass it by if in doubt, or if no one is around to help or answer questions.

The same rule applies if the foliage is off color, not vigorous and healthy green, or if the leaves have noticeable dried or brown tips. If it's wilted or yellowing, leave it behind, too. Sometimes, a local, trusted nursery or greenhouse grower or florist retailer is your best bet. They value your business, and usually respond reliably if you have a complaint or concern. Not so, the big box stores.

If you make a note of when deliveries arrive at the larger supermarkets or big box stores, you might find some healthy arrivals being unpacked and ahead of the common abuse and neglect that often characterizes their inventory.

Unless you are a really adventuresome houseplant grower and budding horticulturist, the most successful rebloomer for you will likely be the Christmas Cactus. It will take nearly a full year for a good display of blossoms. The poinsettia is more trouble, as is the Amaryllis. I must say there are mountains of information on reblooming these, as well as the others.

I've been growing a Kalanchoe in a bright north window in NYC in a cool spot and it is almost never out of flower. As soon as the previous blooms die off, another group sets itself and goes for another few months. It's all timing, location, and the other indefinables that make up this serendipity (aka luck). If all else fails or leaves you in a quandary, a nice bouquet of fresh flowers will probably outlast the box of candy or the cheesecake. (I almost wrote 'fruitcake', but I know better. They outlast anything, no?)

I wish you and yours a very happy, healthy and peaceful holiday season and coming year.


From The Garden of Ed. Submitted for publication in The Towne Crier on December 14, 2005

© 2005 Ed Mues. All Rights Reserved.