Bivins: Pull back the curtains for your holiday plants

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Writer’s note: I found the following articles about Thanksgiving and Christmas plants very interesting and informative because I love your showy plants this time of year. I’m sure many of you do too.  I’m sharing the articles; they were written by Regional Extension Agents with Alabama Extension System.
Holiday cacti, whether Thanksgiving or Christmas, put on quite a show about the time most other color is gone. The Thanksgiving cactus (Schlumbergera truncata) and the Christmas cactus (Schlumbergera bridgesii) are closely related.

“Care for them is similar, and to many, it’s hard to tell them apart. However, for those who want to know why their Christmas cactus is blooming in November, the answer might be – because it’s a Thanksgiving, not Christmas, cactus,” said Sallie Lee, a regional Alabama Extension agent in home grounds, gardens and home pests.

Although native to the tropical forests of South America, these plants do nicely in sturdy hanging baskets or containers as the plants can grow quite large. They do fine outdoors away from artificial light until nighttime temperatures dip into the 40s. At that point, bring them inside to a cool area as they do best when temps are between 50 and 65 degrees. Once inside, to help initiate blooming, keep them away from light from 5 p.m. until 8 a.m. Water sparingly, as too much water can cause bud drop and even root rot, so let the top inch of soil become dry to the touch before watering again.

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Either Schlumbergera is a striking plant in full bloom.

“The most apparent feature, other than when they bloom, is that the Thanksgiving or crab cactus has sharply serrated or toothed leaves. The Christmas cactus has rounded leaves. Another way of identifying which one you have is if blooms push upward, it’s a Thanksgiving cactus and Christmas cactuses hang down,” Lee said.

Plant bodies are flat. Leaves or segments are stems. Old-fashioned cacti produce fuchsia-colored blooms. New hybrids come in white, red, yellow, salmon and even purple.

The long-lived cacti — some varieties have been in families for 50 years – are easily propagated. You’ll need a small container of moist potting soil, a Thanksgiving or Christmas cactus to provide a cutting or cuttings, and rooting hormone, which is helpful but not necessary. Clip off a three or four-segment piece, dip the cut end in rooting hormone if you have it, then push the cut end into a container of soil about an inch or so. That’s the hard part.

Make sure the soil stays moist. Prop a transparent plastic bag over the cutting but don’t let the plastic bag touch the cactus cutting. Insert a popsicle stick or other small wooden structure in the container about an inch or so deep, and drape the plastic mini greenhouse over it. Rooted, growing cuttings make great gifts for friends and family gardeners.

Cacti like 50 to 60 percent humidity. If your home is very dry in the winter, fill a waterproof saucer with gravel. Add water halfway full and put the cactus (in its pot) on the gravel surface.

When flower buds drop before they bloom, it is usually because of overwatering, lack of humidity or insufficient light. Regardless of which holiday cactus you have, avoid high temperatures and heat fluctuations when the plant is flowering.


The Christmas Flower
Poinsettias are what people know as the flower of Christmas. Every year many households have them scattered around their home as decoration for the winter holiday.

There is a legend that a little girl in Mexico, named Pepita, and her cousin, Pedro, were on their way to church in honor of the Christ Child. Pepita was poor and didn’t have money for gifts. On the way to church, she picked a bouquet of wildflowers. As she laid them lovingly on the altar, they turned into beautiful poinsettias, according to Norman Winter, Mississippi State University horticulturist.

This story spurred on the name “Flores de Noche Buena” or Flowers of the Holy Night.

How to pick a poinsettia

“When picking a poinsettia, choose one with colorful bracts but one that the blooms have not opened,” said Chip East, Alabama regional Extension agent in commercial horticulture.

Bracts are the colorful leaves most people associate with the plant. The actual poinsettia flower is the small green or yellow flower in the center of the bracts.

“The plant should appear full with uniformly dark green leaves attached from the colored bracts to almost the base of the plant,” Raymond Kessler, Extension specialist, said in an article on poinsettia care. “The leaves themselves should be completely free of disease and insects.”

Kessler advises people to make sure the poinsettia is a high-quality plant before leaving  the store.


“Although most Christmas poinsettias are red and green, there is a wide array of other colors, including pink, white, orange, marbled, pale green and cream,” added Shane Harris, Tallapoosa County Extension coordinator.

Other variety in poinsettias can be the size of the plant, average lifespan and sturdiness or strength, according to another Kessler article on the greenhouse production of poinsettias.

Care and Maintenance

Once a poinsettia is in the house, place it in the window when possible. However, it can be moved to other areas for display when needed, said East.

The plants do not tolerate moisture or shady areas, Kessler said. They thrive in bright sunlight with moderate temperatures no higher than 70 degrees. If sunlight is too direct, the bracts will discolor.

“If a pretty wrap is around the pot, remove the plant from the wrap before watering,” East said. “Allow the water to drain before placing the plant back in the decorative wrap.”

The average lifespan of an attractive poinsettia is about two to four weeks, or with exceptional care, six to eight weeks, Kessler said. However, it is actually a perennial plant that could live for many years.

“Getting a plant to reflower is difficult for the home grower but can be done,” East said. “Spending time to reflower a poinsettia would make a home grower appreciate the nursery that originally grew it.”

If someone wants to attempt to reflower and maintain their poinsettia, it will need more attention than in the Christmas season. For more in-depth information about post holiday care and reflowering tips, see Kessler’s article “Consumer Poinsettia Care.”