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How to make your holiday plants last throughout the year

December 22, 2005

Poinsettias, amaryllis, and Christmas cactus are some of the plants you're likely to have around the home or office this season. The temptation is to think of them as disposable decorations, but with a little TLC, you can keep these living symbols of the holidays around for months or years.

That beautiful plant you received as a gift or bought at the store probably has its container swathed in festive watertight wrapping of red, gold, green, or silver. The first thing to do is to cut a hole in the bottom of the wrapper for easy draining - nothing kills most plants faster than leaving their roots in standing water day after day.

Keep in mind that the air inside most homes this time of year is arid from heaters and fireplaces. Yet all of the plants mentioned above do better when there is humidity around their leaves. Lightly mist the plants daily. Another trick is to hide a glass of water among your display of potted holiday plants; the water in the glass will help humidify the air.

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While it would be nice to be able to plunk a potted plant any old place you please, the fact is that plants are picky about their environments. With poinsettias especially, your best bet is to place them in a cool area bright with indirect sunlight but not too close to windows, fireplaces, or vents, where drafts tend to occur. Sudden changes in temperature and air movement distress most indoor plants.

Poinsettias are probably the most common plant of the season. Natives of Mexico, they can thrive in the Southern California climate if cared for properly. After the holidays, put your poinsettia in a sunny window and water it when you see the leaves begin to wilt. You might give it a very light dose of indoor fertilizer every month through April, then put it outside in a semi-shaded place.

You can leave the poinsettia in the pot, or better yet, plant it in the ground. If the soil, shading, and fertilizer are right, it might be as tall as four feet by next September.

Amaryllis bulbs have amazing ways of reviving themselves, especially when placed in a sunny window. After all of the blooms have faded, cut off the bloom stock at the soil level - if you're lucky and the plant has had enough light, it will send up a second stalk probably sometime in January.

In any case, let the amaryllis keep its leaves and its sunny-window home until May. Come summer, plant it outdoors and see what happens.

Don't panic if the crimson flowers drop off your Christmas cactus. Simply remove the plant to a cool, sunny location and mist it daily. Heat and dryness around the leaves are what cause the blooms to drop away. Yet resist the temptation to over-hydrate the plant itself - only add water when the soil is dry a half an inch or so below the surface.

As a final note, remember that over-watering kills more houseplants than all other causes combined!

-- J. ANDERSON

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