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Marin IJ Articles

Caring for gift plants at holidays

  • Jane Scurich
  • It's the season for holiday plants, and oftentimes the first ones that come to mind are poinsettias, cyclamen and Christmas cactus.

    While these plants remain widely available and often are given as gifts, a look around our local florists and garden centers can create visions of succulents, tillandsias, orchids and hellabores dancing in your head.

    Tillandsias are the current darlings of the floral design world. Also known as "air plants," there are more than 500 varieties, all within the bromeliad family. They are available in an astounding array of shapes, sizes and colors. Currently, they are quite popular in glass globes and terrariums; some tiny ones are ready for tree hanging.

    I have read numerous care instructions for tillandsias and this is what works for me: once a week I fill a basin with water and allow it to come to room temperature. I submerge each plant for an hour and then place it in a colander to drain before returning it to arrangements in my home. While there are many recommendations for misting each week, I find that challenging for nearby furniture.

    Recently, I attended a centerpiece design class taught by Jennie Strobel, container specialist for Sloat Garden Center. To incorporate tillandsias in containers, she recommended placing a few bits of gravel on the soil and anchoring the air plant on top. This prevents the plant from being in constant contact with moisture tillandsias do not tolerate.

    Succulents are appearing everywhere, from bridal centerpieces to showcase gardens, and are available in a staggering range of shapes and sizes. They also can be used in wreaths and floral arrangements. The plants, however, do not like sitting in moisture. Enjoy them in your gift arrangement, then plant them in fast-draining soil (cactus mix comes in bags at garden centers) in regular sunlight. If you're an apartment dweller with no sunny window, don't be shy about re-gifting your succulents to a friend with sunny outdoor space.

    Hellebores also can land on many holiday gift lists. Commonly referred to as Christmas roses (Helleborus niger or black hellebore), these easy-to-care-for plants are becoming increasingly popular, and for good reason. Their leathery evergreen leaves and lovely flowers make attractive houseplants and can be transitioned into the outside for a lifetime. They thrive in partial to full shade, with good air circulation and well-drained soil amended with compost or organic matter.

    Orchids, especially the Phalaenopsis or moth orchid, are gift plants with amazing longevity and are available in multiple colors and bloom sizes. Finding the perfect location in your home, removed from heat vents and direct sunlight, is critical to extending the bloom period.

    After the blooms have ceased, Bruce Rogers, "The Orchid Whisperer," recommends, "Cut back three growth nodes from the end of the bloom stalk." Do not cut the bloom stalk to the base of the plant as this will require a much longer growth period before it re-blooms. Continue to water "weakly weekly": once a week, water with half-strength orchid fertilizer, allowing the water to flow through the pot. Do not leave the plant sitting in a puddle.

    Traditional holiday plants such as poinsettias, cyclamen and Christmas cactus may be coming your way this holiday season. When they arrive, it's worth remembering that wet roots are taboo so get rid of that shiny foil. It inhibits drainage. They also do not tolerate drafts from a fireplace or furnace vents.

    Both the poinsettia and the Christmas cactus should be watered when the surface is dry to the touch. Cyclamen prefer to be kept moist and can wilt quickly. Water at the soil level, but keep moisture away from the area on the tuber where the leaf and flower stems grow because this may cause the plant to rot.

    Paper white narcissus are my personal favorite to fill my home with fragrance and bloom. These bulbs are easy to be forced in soil, gravel or sand. Enjoy them while they are in bloom, then compost them.

    Amaryllis are also easy to grow, traditional flowering gift plants. After enjoying their long bloom period, they can easily becoming a part of your landscape. While it is possible to encourage them to re-bloom at holiday time, it is much easier to allow them to acclimate to your garden and bloom on their own timetable. A step by step plan for encouraging amaryllis to bloom again next holiday season can be found online at www.usna.usda.gov/Gardens/faqs/AmaryllisBloom.html.

    Here's wishing you a happy holiday season filled with bulbs, corms, annuals, perennials and a wide array of flowering plants.