Extending Enjoyment of Christmas Plants
By: Judy Stout, Mobile County Master Gardener |CoastalAlabamaGardening@gmail.com
Q I have decorated my house for Christmas with poinsettias and Christmas cactuses and I have received beautiful gifts of several other types of flowering holiday houseplants. How can I keep them blooming and can I get them to rebloom next year?
A In the Mobile area, the most common potted, holiday plants include poinsettia, Christmas cactus, Cyclamen, and Kalanchoe. Amazingly, poinsettias are the top-selling potted plant in the U.S. with over 55 million sold in 2002! Production of new colors and color patterns resulted in over 125 varieties in 2003!
Kalonchoe by Judy Stout
Christmas cactus by Judy Stout
These plants are naturally tropical in origin and not winter-hardy outdoors. General indoor, holiday and winter care conditions are similar all. Keep indoor temperatures 68-72° in the daytime and 60-65° at night. Protect from drafts and extreme temperature fluctuations. Locate away from exterior doors, HVAC vents, ceiling fans, fireplaces and cold windows. Place in bright but not direct sunlight.
Water regularly maintaining moist but not soggy soil. Most failures are due to too much or too little watering. Provide good drainage. Remove the decorative pot sleeves or put holes in the bottom of the sleeve and place pot in a saucer. Empty excess water from the saucer after each watering. Use room temperature water that has not been treated with a water softener. If your water is fluoridated, let it sit overnight to allow fluoride to dissipate.
Wilted leaves may be caused by either extreme of watering so don’t assume you need to water more when this happens! A good rule of thumb is to stick your index finger into the top inch of the soil up to the first joint. The soil at the top should feel dry. If moist soil sticks to the belowground fingertip, there is no need to water. If you pick up the pot and it feels unusually light, it has dried too much. Gradually restore to a regular watering schedule. Be careful not to water the center of Cyclamen or the nub of the tuber that may be sticking out of the soil!
When purchased, there are probably enough nutrients in the potting soil for a healthy, blooming plant and additional fertilizer is not needed. After all spent blooms have been removed and leaves remain green, fertilize every 2-3 weeks with a balanced (all three numbers on the label are the same, e.g., 15-15-15), complete, soluble or slow release fertilizer, diluted to half the recommended strength.
With good indoor climate conditions, you may expect to extend blooming for several weeks. Cyclamen and Christmas cactus may continue for a couple of months. Continuously remove spent flowers to promote continued flowering and reduce the possibility of diseases. Poinsettia ‘flowers’ are really those itsy-bitsy yellow balls in the middle of red bracts! When yellow balls start to fall off and red begins to fade, cut stems just below the red bracts. Cut off Cyclamen and Kalanchoe flowers at the base of each flower stalk. Christmas cactus flowers can easily be pinched from the tip of the leaf. If more than one bud is at the tip, remove the drooping spent flower, careful not to disturb the remaining bud.
Notes: Cyclamen leaves may begin to yellow in late winter. Remove until the plant is leafless and dormant. Move to a dry, cool location and reduce watering to monthly. Resume regular watering in July and new leaves will begin to emerge from the tuber. Do not fertilize Cyclamen while dormant but resume as soon as new leaves appear. It is a challenge to get Cyclamen to rebloom, but they are great foliage plants!!
Christmas cactus prefers to be pot bound so don’t repot any more often than every three years. Poinsettias may benefit from repotting annually into a slightly larger pot.
When outside night temperatures are reliably above 45-50° and there is no danger of frost (late March or early April), move potted plants to your yard. Pick a bright, partially shaded site with little direct sunlight, especially in the hotter afternoon. Continue regular watering and fertilizer applications every 2-3 weeks through August.
Spring and early summer pruning of poinsettias, Christmas cactus and Kalanchoe will promote new branches and bushier plants. Cut poinsettias back by six inches and continue to prune through June. Shorten Kalanchoe stems, leaving about four sets of leaves. Remove several joints of Christmas cactus branches April-May. Two new segments will form. Again, in June, remove the last mature joint and you may get two buds at each pruned tip.
Flower bud production is stimulated by short days and long nights of uninterrupted darkness (the photoperiod). Daily full, continuous darkness for 12-14 hours and bright daylight for 10-12 hours are required beginning October 1, discontinuing when flower buds begin to appear 6-8 weeks later. For the ambitious gardener, highly detailed instructions and schedules are available in the literature. However, daylight/dark hours in Mobile approximate those requirements and you will often get reblooming by simply keeping your outdoor plants in indirect, bright light without having to manage the light levels! Resulting plants may not be as lush and have fewer, or no flowers, than if intensively managed.
Holiday plants need to be moved indoors when nighttime temperatures are below 50°F.