Festive holiday plant know-how

Bonnie Nowicki

Poinsettias (Euphorbia pulcherrima) are the traditional choice for the Christmas holidays. This plant species is indigenous to Mexico. Its common English name is derived from Joel Poinsett, the first United States Minister to Mexico, who introduced the plant to the U.S. in 1825.

Poinsettia’s colorful bracts (modified leaves) brighten up any room in your home. Brilliant red blooms have been joined by even flashier colors. In the plant world these bracts are designed to attract insects to the tiny yellowish flowers in the plant’s center. Being part of the Euphorbia family, they exude a milky sap when branches are broken. This sap may cause an itchy rash. A well-known misconception is Poinsettias are poisonous to pets. In truth, they are only mildly toxic if ingested, and many plants would have to be eaten. So do not hesitate to enjoy a Poinsettia this holiday season.

Purchase full, not leggy plants whose bracts are firm, not drooping, with the little center flowers intact. When the top soil is dry, water and drain thoroughly. No fertilizer is necessary while in bloom. Avoiding cool or hot drafts and grouping plants is a good idea. They prefer bright light in a southwest or east facing window with temperatures between 65-75 degrees.

Christmas Cactus (Schlumbergera bridgesii) is another popular holiday choice. It is a small genus of cacti with six to nine species originally found in the coastal mountains of southeast Brazil. As epiphytes, which means they grow on something else besides soil, they’re found in the crotches of trees or in rock outcroppings in shady habitats with high humidity. Their stems resemble leaf-like, spineless, flat pads. As cultivated houseplants, they flower best when slightly potbound. The amazing flower colors from red, pink, apricot, and fuchsia appear from areoles at the joints and tips of stems and will bloom into February. No need to repot more than every two or three years. They prefer indirect light and less water; every ten days or so is best.

I would like to share an interesting legend. A young boy living in the jungles of Brazil prayed to God for a sign of Christmas. When he stepped out of his hut on Christmas Day the jungle trees were filled with hanging flowers from the cacti growing in the branches. They looked like Christmas bells to the delighted little boy. Unfortunately, this legend isn’t very likely since Christmas cacti bloom when days are short in Brazil; which is May in the southern hemisphere. That’s why Brazilians call our Christmas cactus May Flower.

Perhaps knowing a bit more about these two popular Christmas plants will encourage you to purchase several and truly enjoy them. Happy Holidays to all!

P.S. Last chance to register for the Jan. 21 Master Gardener course. Call 520-648-0808.