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Tales from a Plant Addict

Fun (& a few serious) facts, tips and tricks for every gardener, new and old.

Keeping Gift Plants Healthy

This holiday season, you may have received a plant or two as gifts, won the centerpiece at a holiday party, or purchased a plant to decorate your home. Popular flowering plants sold this time of year include the ever-popular poinsettia, Christmas cactus, Norfolk Island Pine, cyclamen, amaryllis, orchids, and gardenias. "Everyday" foliage plants like ivy and philodendron are often sold trained into topiary wreath or tree forms. With a little extra attention, their beauty can last well past the holidays.

When purchasing gift plants, pay close attention to how the plants are handled in the store where you intend to purchase them. Do the plants look healthy? Or wilted and neglected? I once saw a store place extremely cold-sensitive poinsettias right near the door where they got a blast of cold air each time someone entered the store. As a general rule, ailing plants will not improve once you get them home, at least where holiday displays for 2012 are concerned.

However you acquired your holiday plant, it is worth the extra time and effort to cover it with some sort of wrap or bag when transporting it home. Many holiday plants are native to tropical climates, and most are acclimated to a warm greenhouse or store. Even a short exposure to below or near freezing temperatures can be enough to do permanent damage to the plant. Leaving holiday plants in the car while you do other errands, even when they are wrapped, can also allow them to become damaged from cold exposure.

After safely bringing your plant into your home, it is important to remove any protective wrappings that may be on the plant. Clear plastic sleeves, even if they are open on top will hold too much moisture and the plant will likely deteriorate rapidly without adequate air circulation.

Some holiday plants may have decorative moss covering the soil. This decoration is attractive in the short term, but for long term health of the plant, it is best to remove decorative moss. It tends to hold too much moisture which may contribute to root or crown rot of the plant.

Holiday plants are often sold in decorative plastic or foil sleeves, or decorative pots without drainage holes. This makes it very easy to overwater. It is a good idea to remove these decorative items when watering, which will allow excess water to flow freely from the pot. If plastic or foil sleeves cover up the plant, fold them back or trim them to allow for good air circulation around the plant. Check that water is not standing in any decorative sleeves or pots after watering. Standing water will promote root rot.

Overwatering is one of the top causes of not only holiday plant death, but houseplant death in general. As a rule of thumb allow soil to dry partially before watering. How can you tell if a plant is dry? A dry pot will feel lighter than the same pot after watering (this takes some practice to recognize), and when you insert your index finger up to the first knuckle, the soil will feel dry and not cling to your finger.

Another unpleasant side effect from overwatering besides root and crown rot is fungus gnats. Eggs of these pests may be present in the plant's soil and they develop and hatch when the soil is kept overly wet for extended periods. The adult gnats are annoying, but the larvae will damage the plant by eating the plant's roots. There are some expensive treatments on the market for fungus gnats, but the most economical solution is to let the soil dry out, and in extreme cases repot the plant after removing as much of the infected soil as possible.

Though overwatering is tough on plants, so is underwatering. Repeatedly allowing a plant to dry to the point of wilting may damage the plant. On a blooming plant, repeated cycles of wilting will shorten the life of blooms present and may cause buds to drop.

Although many holiday plants are used to decorate our homes during the holiday season, they still need to be placed in an appropriate location at least most of the time. It's fine to use a holiday plant as a centerpiece or accent in your home during a party, but after the festivities return the plant to a location with bright indirect light and a comfortable room temperature (68-72ºF). Blooming plants may hold their blooms longer in cooler rooms.

No matter where you place your plant, party or not, avoid cold or warm drafts at all costs. Drafts will often cause flower or leaf drop. In the case of the popular poinsettia, the plant reacts very quickly. I have seen poinsettias lose leaves within minutes of experiencing a cold draft of a few seconds.

It may be tempting to fertilize your holiday plants, but hold off until spring when growth conditions are typically more ideal. For the time being, remove blooms as they fade to promote development of new flowers. Also remove any dead leaves or other debris. Above all, enjoy your holiday plant! For more information on care of specific Holiday plants, contact me at U of I Extension in Macon County at (217) 877-6042 or Happy Holidays!


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