The tiny, yellow buds at the center of poinsettia (Euphorbia pulcherrima) blooms are actually the unimpressive flowers. The colorful red, white, pink or rarely pale orange bracts surrounding these flowers are merely colorful leaves. Some varieties have marbled, blotched or spotted bracts. Compact potted plants that are mostly less than two feet tall and broad can get quite lanky and taller than ten feet in the garden. The dark green leaves are about three to five inches long.
Just three weeks after Christmas, many of us are already wondering what to do with poinsettias, cyclamens, Christmas cacti, hollies and living Christmas trees. Christmas cacti and hollies are perhaps the easiest of these to accommodate. Christmas cacti do not even need to leave the home as their flowers eventually deteriorate, since they are happy as foliar houseplants or potted on sheltered porches, and with good sun exposure, will bloom annually. Hollies make handsome shrubbery where their prickly foliage will not be a problem. Since some hollies get quite large, and others stay low and compact, it is helpful to know which variety any particular holly plant is.
Cyclamens are popular as cool season bedding plants as well as blooming potted plants. Gardeners typically dispose of those grown as bedding plants as if they were mere annuals. However, they are actually cool season perennials that go dormant through summer. If they are not in the way of warm season annuals in spring, and are among other plants that will cover for them during their dormancy, they can be left in the garden to regenerate and bloom again next winter. Individual potted plants that get too tired to be appealing in the home can be retired to partly shaded shallow ground cover or mixed perennials for a bit of winter color.
Poinsettias are a bit more complicated, which is why so many people simply discard them as they slowly lose their color after Christmas. They can keep their color for many months, and be happy as houseplants, but rarely bloom again in the home once their first bloom is gone. Alternatively, they can be planted into sheltered and partly shaded spots in the garden after frost. Through summer, they develop taller scrawny stems that bloom early in January or so. (Yes, they bloom ‘after’ Christmas.) They are sensitive to frost, so like to be under eaves.
Of all the popular potted plants associated with Christmas, living Christmas trees are the most problematic, not because they are difficult to care for, but because they so often get planted in bad situations. Only the compact conifers, like spruces, junipers and Scots pines, can stay potted to function as Christmas trees for a few years or more. Almost all other pines grow too vigorously to be happy for long in containers. After Christmas, they should instead get their circling roots severed, and then be planted into the garden.
The problem is that most living Christmas trees are Italian stone pines or Canary Island pines, each of which gets much too large for confined garden spaces. If there is not enough space for such a tree to grow to maturity without causing trouble, it best to find another home for it, or to discard it when it outgrows containment.
Pot plants are very different from common potted plants. Potted plants sustain healthy growth within pots or similar containers. They can range from small houseplants to small trees in big tubs out in the elements. Those that do not live for long in a particular pot before outgrowing it can continue to live in increasingly larger pots. They are considered to be sustainable, rather than temporary.
Pot plants, conversely, are generally expendable. They come into the home or office at their prime, but stay only as long as they continue to perform. For some, this may not be more than a month or so. They typically live their entire brief lifetimes within their original pots. Many endured forcing techniques that are difficult to recover from. Some are little more than uncut cut flowers with roots.
Most pot plants are seasonal. Most are seasonal at Christmas time. These include poinsettias, amaryllis, Christmas cactus, azaleas, hollies, cyclamen, rosemary (in conical ‘Christmas tree’ form) and live Christmas trees. Chrysanthemums were seasonal for autumn. Miniature roses will be in season for Saint Valentine’s Day. Easter lilies and hydrangeas will be seasonal in time for Easter.
Recovery from forcing techniques that are necessary to grow unnaturally showy pot plants is not impossible. It just might be difficult. That is why most poinsettias, Easter lilies and miniature roses rarely survive in the garden. Some pot plants, particularly azaleas and hydrangeas, are cultivars that excel as pot plants, but not in a garden. Christmas cactus and hollies are more likely to thrive.
Some types of live Christmas trees are likely to survive as well. That may not be an advantage. Dwarf Alberta spruce can remain potted as a live Christmas tree for several years, and then do well in the garden. Other spruces may remain potted for a few years, but then demand more space in the garden. Most other live Christmas trees either do not recover in the garden, or grow too large, such as Italian stone pine or Canary Island pine.
‘Tis the season for seasonal potted plants. These are not well established houseplant or potted plants that live out on porches and patios through the year. Seasonal potted plants are those that are purchased at their prime, allowed to live in our homes and offices while they continue to bloom or maintain their foliage, and then most likely get discarded when no longer visually appealing.
Poinsettia epitomizes winter seasonal potted plants. Florists’ cyclamen, azalea, holly, amaryllis, Christmas cactus and small living Christmas trees are other overly popular choices. All are grown in very synthetic environments designed to force optimal performance, with no regard to survival afterward. They are like cut flowers that are not yet dead. They are true aberrations of horticulture.
Technically, any of them can survive as potted plants, or out in the garden after they serve their purpose as appealing seasonal potted plants. Their main difficulty is that it is not so easy for them to recover from their prior cultivation, and adapt to more realistic environmental conditions. For now, it is best to enjoy them at their best, and try to maintain them at their best for as long as possible.
Eventually, they all experience a phase in which their original growth deteriorates to some extent, while they start to generate new growth that is adapted to the situation that they are in at the time. Christmas cactus are probably the most proficient at adapting, and becoming delightful houseplants. They are even likely to bloom occasionally, although not on any particular schedule for winter.
Holly, azalea and cyclamen can eventually get planted out in the garden. Most hollies grow into large evergreen shrubbery, but do not produce as many berries as they originally did. Azaleas are cultivars that were developed to be seasonal potted plants, so are a bit more finicky than those developed more for landscapes. Cyclamen can be added to pots of mixed annuals and perennials.
Living Christmas trees are not so easy to accommodate. Most are pines that need their space.
Latin and the other languages used to designate botanical names can make the mundane seem compelling, and the unpleasant sound appealing. ‘Nasturtium’ certainly sounds better than ‘nose twister’, which refers to the reaction to the unpleasant fragrance of the flowers. Horticultural professionals can use such language to our advantage, and for more than designating real genera and specie. ‘Necrodendron’ certainly sounds more interesting than ‘dead tree’, and is less likely to offend tree huggers.
‘Pseudodendron’ is a euphemism for ‘fake tree’. Brent, my colleague in Southern California, sometimes points them out in interiorscapes, or worse, in real exterior landscapes. We sometimes analyze them as if they are real. We both are amused to see fake bananas or fake pineapples, or both, hanging from fake cocoanut palms. Sometimes, someone who overhears our conversation feels compelled to inform us that the pseudodendrons that we are so intrigued by are fake. Sometimes, someone asks about growing them in their own gardens.
Of course, hassling Brent about his artificial turf never gets old. It is installed outside of his office to demonstrate how practical it is for clients who are considering it for their landscapes. It really does look great though. Brent probably gives it plenty of fertilizer, and waters it well.
By the time Brent finds out that there is something much worse in one of the landscapes that I work in, it will be gone. Now that it is late January, these fake poinsettias will be removed any day. I will not miss them. Even if they were real, they would still look silly. That is just too much red.
Unfortunately, these poinsettias are perennial. They will be put away until next winter, when they will come out of storage to go back into the same spot in the landscape.
Cut Christmas trees really are the way to go. There is no obligation to take care of them after Christmas. They do not need to planted out into a garden that will be too small for them as they grow. They do not need to be maintained in a pot, only to get disfigured or partially defoliated before next Christmas. They simple get removed from the home and composted or otherwise disposed of.
Potted living Christmas trees may seem like a good idea, but they are not as sustainable as they seem to be. Only the smaller and more compact types of conifers can be confined to big pots or planted into compact garden spaces. Rosemary shorn into small cones happens do well either in big pots or out in the garden, and if preferred, can be allowed to assume its natural bushy form.
Many other potted plants that are popularly brought into the home for Christmas decoration are easier to accommodate but take a bit of effort. Poinsettias are the most familiar of these. They can grow as houseplants for years, and might hold their colorful bracts for months. In mild climates, they can be planted in the garden, but will never look like they did originally. Most get discarded.
Hollies and azaleas are more sustainable, but are not as popular. Of these, hollies are the easiest. They can be planted in larger pots or directly into the garden later, when the worst of winter is over. Azaleas will eventually drop their flowers, and will likely look very distressed for a few months, but if watered regularly, can regenerate new foliage that is adapted to their new environments.
Christmas cactus happens to be a delightful houseplant regardless of the season. It will also drop its flowers, but will generate appealing pendulous foliage that cascades nicely from hanging pots. It can bloom annually, although timing of bloom is quite variable. It can do the same outside, if sheltered. Amaryllis also prefers to stay potted. It will replace its tall flower stalks with a few leaves that sustain the bulbs until dormancy next autumn, and can bloom again next winter if given a chance.
All Saints’ Day is November 1. As the name implies, it is a feast day that honors all Saints. It is one of the most important Holy Days of the Catholic Church. Yet, not many of us know about it.
We are much more familiar with the day before, which had been known as All Hollows’ Eve, and is now known simply as Halloween. Although some of the associated traditions are fun for children, Halloween has become an excuse for people to dress up in costumes, party, ruin perfectly good pumpkins, and behave stupidly. What an unsaintly way to celebrate, just prior to the day designated to honor all Saints!
Saint Patrick’s Day is no better. People dress up in green, party, exchange disposable potted shamrocks, and behave stupidly, all on a day that had been designated to honor a Saint whom they know very little about, and care even less about.
Mardi Gras at least makes a bit more sense, with all the indulgent behavior just prior to forty days of good behavior and fasting. Even societies that do not party for Mardi Gras have old traditions of feasting on foods that will be abstained from through Lent, just to avoid wasting them. It is easy to see how such feasting and indulgence evolved into over indulgence and partying. Mardi Gras lacks a tradition of wasting innocent horticultural commodities like pumpkins and shamrocks.
Easter, at the other end of Lent, is still a respectable Holy Day. Most people know that it is a celebration of the Resurrection of Jesus, and celebrate accordingly. Perhaps a bit of indulgence is in order after forty days of fasting, Colored eggs nestled in fake grass, and disposable potted lilies, do not seem to be as inappropriate as ruined pumpkins.
Christmas is the most complicated Holy Day of all. It should probably be divided into two separate Holy Days. The primary Christmas should be the celebration of the birthday of Jesus. The secondary Christmas, which could be assigned another day, and given a different name, could be a celebration of disposable potted poinsettias, dead mistletoe, and a fat guy in red coming down chimneys to deliver gifts under dead coniferous trees that would be terribly embarrassed by their tacky adornments if they were alive.
There is more to Holy Days than pumpkins, shamrocks, lilies, poinsettias, mistletoe and coniferous trees.
It seems like such a waste that so many of the prettiest blooming plants are generally regarded as temporary. They are grown in the most synthetic of environments, forced into bloom, sold at their prime, and kept as potted plants just long enough to finish their bloom cycle. When their bloom deteriorates, they typically get discarded, or planted out into the garden where they rarely survive.
Poinsettias epitomize these flowering potted plants, which are known in the nursery industry simply as pot plants. Almost all of us have given or received them as gifts or decorated our home with them prior to Christmas. Although they are not considered to be annuals, few survive as houseplants, and almost none survive in the garden. No one wants to admit to what happens to the rest.
Okay, so it is not really a big loss. Poinsettias do not do well here anyway; and even if they survive, they are not as appealing in the landscape as they are as pot plants. What about all the others? Easter lilies, chrysanthemums, amaryllis, hydrangeas, orchids, azaleas, miniature roses, kalanchoes and even a few evergreens and living Christmas trees are all grown as forced potted plants.
It is important to be aware that all of these forced plants were grown in very synthetic environments, in which temperature, humidity and perhaps even day length were manipulated to coerce the plants to bloom, or for evergreens to be as lush as they are. Some were stunted with growth regulators. Recovering from such manipulation takes some time and effort, but for most, it is possible.
Of course, they all have their own personalities, and require different sorts of pampering. Some only need their old flowers to be pruned away, and will be able to produce new foliage that is adapted to their new environment. Amaryllis starts out without foliage, so has the advantage of making all new foliage after bloom. Chrysanthemum will eventually want to be cut back to favor new basal foliage. Easter lily foliage should be left while it dies back slowly until dormancy. New foliage grows next year.
After all the Christmas decorations get put away for next year, and the Christmas tree eventually gets undressed from all its ornaments, and retired to the compost pile or greenwaste, all the pretty seasonal potted plants remain. Some will bloom, or at least maintain their current bloom, for months. Some might eventually get planted out in the garden. Others might stay potted in the home.
Poinsettias are the epitome of seasonal potted plants for Christmas. Their flashy red bracts last a very long time, even after the tiny yellow flowers are gone. Some are pink, white, pale yellow, peachy, marbled or spotted. They can be grown as foliar houseplants, but will not likely bloom next Christmas. If protected from frost in the garden, they get tall and lanky, and bloom in January.
Christmas cactus is an excellent potted plant either indoors or out where protected from frost. The pendulous growth cascades nicely from a hanging pot. It blooms in phases, but does not stick to a tight schedule. Amaryllis should also stay potted only because it does not do well in the garden over winter. Foliage that develops after bloom will die back next autumn before bloom next winter.
Holly and azalea can be planted directly into the garden where appropriate. Azalea will probably look shabby until it gets new growth. Cyclamen is a perennial in the garden, but dies back over summer. It just might come back with a surprise in autumn. Paperwhite narcissus is perennial too, but exhausts its resources on bloom, so takes a year or more to recover before blooming again.
Small living Christmas trees are more variable than they seem. Rosemary can either be kept potted and shorn, or planted into the garden and allowed to grow wild or into another form. Dwarf Alberta spruce can likewise stay potted or get planted into the garden, but needs no shearing. Both rosemary and dwarf Alberta spruce will want larger pots as they grow. Italian stone pine and Canary Island pine grow into large shady trees, so should only be planted into spacious landscapes that can accommodate them.