Help for Gift Plants

Rachel Burrows

Are your Christmas gift plants beginning to look a little sorry for themselves? They all look so wonderful and healthy when they arrive from the florist, and now the flowers are finished, the leaves are turning brown and horror of horrors, you have a whitefly infestation!

Lets talk about the classic Christmas gift plant, poinsettias. Every year we are tempted to buy by the dazzling display of new varieties. So we buy, we display, we discard. My personal choice is to dump the straggly February poinsettia in the compost bin. However it is possible but challenging to get them to rebloom next year. Once the bracts begin to fade and fall off, prune the plant back by half. Remove any remaining bracts and fertilize monthly with half strength houseplant fertilizer. Place the plant in a bright spot, make sure that it is not in a draft or above a heating vent, keep it moist but not soggy. Poinsettias like humidity and will benefit from a light misting between waterings. Your plant will enjoy a summer outside where it gets morning sun. Once the new growth appears, repot the plant in a slightly larger pot. Keep it moist, fertilize and keep pruning to promote new growth. Once it gets cool in early September and before the first frost, bring the plant back inside, checking for any insects when you do so. Now comes the difficult part! Around October 1st the poinsettia has to have complete darkness for 14 hours each night in order to regain colour. I really do mean complete darkness; any light during this time will mean that it will not regain its colour. Place the plant in an unused closet or even cover it with a black plastic bag if you think that someone may open the closet door. During the day continue to give it plenty of light, keep moist and fertilize. Once colour returns to the bracts you can put the plant out on display again. Good luck!

Amaryllis is a lot easier to get to rebloom. Once the bloom has finished, cut the stalk close to the base, keep the plant moist and fertilize regularly until mid summer when the bulb can be allowed to go into dormancy. Repot in early November and give it the same care and you should have blooms in time for Christmas.

Cyclamen prefer cool temperatures and hate drafts. They will wilt in high temperatures and from lack of water. Let the soil surface dry out and water by standing the plant in a couple of inches of tepid water for 20 minutes. Cyclamen do best in a cool place with a little shade. North facing windows work well. Feed with a diluted houseplant fertilizer once a week during the growing period. They will benefit form a rest period during the summer. The plant can be put outdoors in a shady spot. Most of the top growth will shrivel and die, leaving the bare tuber. Once new growth starts in August, repot and bring indoors, checking carefully for insects.

African violets come in a wonderful range of colours and are one of the most popular houseplants. They enjoy the company of other plants and are an ideal subject for setting in containers with other houseplants. The African violet cannot tolerate cold water on its leaves or crown. It should be watered with tepid water from below. Keep the soil evenly moist. Add a liquid fertilizer every 2 weeks during the growth period. They love the light but cannot take hot, direct sun. Pick off faded flowers and leaves right to the base to maintain only 3 to 4 layers of leaves on the plant. Brush off any dust or soil from the leaves using a soft paintbrush. With the right care, African violets will last for many years, flowering most of the time.

Christmas cacti are another species that is relatively easy to look after and will live for many years. They like a cool east or west-facing window but avoid direct sunlight. Allow the soil surface to dry out between waterings and do not let the plant sit in water. One of the most frustrating and common problems is bud fall. Once you see new buds forming, leave the plant alone and do not move it. They dislike sudden change, either in light quality or direction. Let the plant rest after blooming by cutting back on watering, keeping cool and withholding fertilizer. Christmas cacti require similar treatment to poinsettias to get them to rebloom. The plant must have total darkness every night for at least 3 weeks.

If you brush against your houseplants and a cloud of tiny white dots fly into the air, you have an infestation of whitefly. This is quite common and can spread quickly form plant to plant. Isolate the infected plants and check all others carefully. A soapy water bath or spray will help. Use a small amount of dishwashing liquid or Safers insecticidal soap. Make sure that you spray all parts of the plant and repeat at weekly intervals for 3 weeks to ensure that all stages of the life cycle are dealt with. Sticky yellow strips attract the pest and are available form garden stores.

Enjoy your plants, let them brighten your house during the winter and let them rest outside during the summer.

Take in garden ornaments and ceramic or clay pots that will not withstand the effects of the freeze thaw cycles and will be damaged or break if left unprotected. If you plan on filling your pots with fall or winter foliage be sure to use plastic, metal or fiberglass. Clean and store your tools and hoses.