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The Homeowners Column
Selecting Alternative Holiday Plants
State Master Gardener Coordinator
Most people think of red poinsettias for holiday decorations. However over the past few years we have seen new colors -white, pink and variegated. The Winter Rose poinsettia has become particularly popular this year. It took 30 years of breeding research for Paul Ecke Ranch in California to bring the curly, dark red poinsettia to the industry. However there are many other flowering plants available in florist shops, supermarkets, garden centers, and greenhouses during the holidays. By carefully selecting and properly caring for these plants, you can ensure color throughout the holidays.
The Virginia Cooperative Extension offers these tips in selecting and caring for those poinsettia alternatives.
Amaryllis can be purchased at any stage of development -- from a single bulb all the way to the "puffy bud" stage. One third of the bulb (the "nose") should be above the soil line. Place it in a sunny, warm location and watch the leaves and flower stem elongate. No fertilizer is necessary until after flowering. The soil should be kept on the dry side -- avoid overwatering. Temperatures should be above 60°F for this tropical plant, and high light intensities will help ensure the leaves and flower stems do not stretch and topple over. Turning the pot periodically will also help the plant to grow upright.
It takes about 4 to 6 weeks from planting time until the first flower opens. When the flower buds begin to swell and turn color, another day or two will result in open flowers. Larger bulb sizes (ten or more inches in circumference) will result in at least four flower buds, providing a longer bloom period. Amaryllis can be found in red, white, pink, and orange shades and are easy to rebloom.
Gloxinias, close relatives of African violets, are low-growing, spreading plants with large, fuzzy leaves and trumpet-shaped flowers. A high-quality plant will have at least three to five open flowers and at least that many more buds showing in the center of the plant. In general, gloxinias should be treated as African violets -- avoid high-intensity, direct sunlight; water from the saucer with warm (at least 70°F) water; keep on the moist side but not waterlogged; and avoid cold or hot drafts. If allowed to wilt or if placed in too dark a location, most of the buds may fall off.Gloxinias also come in purples, whites, pinks, and bicolors.
Azaleas plants should be purchased with some or all flowers still in bud. Azalea flowers will last longer if they are kept in a cool spot (60-65°F). Never let the soil dry out or the flowers may quickly wilt and fall off. Azaleas are tough to keep year after year. Florist azaleas are not winter hardy here.
Perhaps the most durable flowering potted plants available this time of year are the kalanchoe and Christmas cactus. Kalanchoes like it warm and dry; if you tend to forget to water your plants, this is the best candidate, though drought-stress will tend to promote shorter flower life. When buying a kalanchoe, look for lots of color and little or no dead flowers. At least two or three flower clusters should be present on a 4-inch plant, at least four or five on a 6-inch plant. Most of the plants sold as Christmas cactus are actually Thanksgiving cactus. Both should be kept evenly moist while in flower. High temperatures or excessive drying will cause the flowers to wilt and drop. Christmas cactus is one of the easiest holiday plants to rebloom next year, but plan on them as Thanksgiving guests.