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Garden Guru: Interesting stories behind holiday plants

By John Porter
John Porter
The Thanksgiving cactus is often mistakenly called a Christmas cactus.

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- There are a number of plants that make popular gifts and decorations around the holidays. These plants first gained popularity as gifts because they represented signs of growth and life during the otherwise dark and bleak winter.

Poinsettias are, of course, the leaders among the holiday plants, but you also have amaryllis, paperwhites and the misnamed Christmas cactus.

In the early days of their popularity, it was a marvel of modernity to have the ability to grow these plants in greenhouses in the cold North American and European climates. Except for the paperwhites, which are a type of daffodil, all of these plants are tropical in origin. It was something special to be able to give these plants as gifts, which is why they remain popular.

Poinsettia (Euphorbia pulcherrima)

The poinsettia hails from central Mexico, where it can grow to a shrub of 12 feet tall. This local weed became associated with Christmas in the 15th century, where legend tells of a girl who picked them at the behest of an angel. The girl placed them on the altar for the Christmas celebration, and they sprang to life with crimson blooms. The plant was introduced to the U.S. by the first U.S. minister (ambassador) to Mexico in 1825. His name was Robert Joel Poinsett. (Gee, I wonder where they got the idea to call it a poinsettia.)

Poinsettias like plenty of light, so put it in a bright room or near a sunny window. Don't let it touch the cold glass; this can damage the plant. You should water your poinsettia when the top of the soil dries out.

The best way to water poinsettias is in a sink or bathtub, where you can let the excess water drain out. Never let your poinsettia sit in water! This is the No. 1 cause of death among poinsettias. I suggest removing the foil from the pot or cutting holes in the bottom and placing a pot saucer inside.

If you can keep your plant healthy until next year, you can make it bloom again by putting it on a strict schedule of light and dark around the middle of September. It will need at least 12 hours of total darkness for a few weeks to initiate blooming.

There are some misconceptions about poinsettias. First, they are not super-toxic. This information has been blown way out of proportion. Their sap can cause a mild rash in some people, and it will cause upset stomach (and related functions we will not discuss here). There has never been a reported fatality or even a serious medical treatment related to the ingestion of poinsettias.

Second, the colorful parts of the plant are not flowers -- they're just really dressed-up leaves. The flowers of a poinsettia are those ugly little greenish yellow bits in the center.

Amaryllis (Hippeastrum sp.)

There is a genus of plants called Amaryllis. The plants we see at the holidays do not belong in that genus. They did once, but scientists decided in the 1980s to call them something else. The public didn't listen.

Plants in the genus Amaryllis are native to Africa, and we do grow them here -- outside. They are those pink flowers that pop up in the late spring. The plants we see at Christmas are native to South America and belong to the genus Hippeastrum. They are, indeed, still part of the Amaryllidaceae family, so I guess still calling them amaryllis isn't a crime.

Those who know Greek, or those who like horses, will catch the name connection to that of the horse, which is hippos. This connection comes from an early description of the plant having a flower resembling a horse's head. I personally don't see it. The early common name was knight's star lily, which I like much better, maybe because it is in reference to a medieval weapon.

You'll most likely find amaryllis in a kit at a garden store or maybe as a plant at a florist. Sometimes good garden centers will carry loose bulbs, which are usually of higher quality than those in the kits. When selecting a bulb, choose one that is firm with a tight covering. Ideally, you want one that hasn't started growing. You'll pot it up just like any normal houseplant, leaving the top of the bulb exposed above the soil.

When it is finished blooming, remove the spent bloom stalk. Leaves will come up, and keep it happy and healthy until the leaves start to yellow. At that point, start withholding water and move the bulb, pot and all, to a cool place. After at least eight to 10 weeks, you can repot and water the bulb and move it to a warm area to get it growing again. You can make them bloom at any time, so they all don't have to bloom at Christmas.

Paperwhite (Narcissus tazetta)

Named for its snowy white color, paperwhites are an easy-to-grow plant for the holidays. These are a type of daffodil and also are members of the Amaryllidaceae family (they are not lilies). They are named after a fellow in Greek mythology who fell in love with his own reflection and starved to death while staring at himself. Flowers grew where he died as a reminder of his beauty, and that we shouldn't fall in love with ourselves.

The term for growing bulbs in the winter like this is "forcing," and for paperwhites, it couldn't be easier. These plants do have some toxicity (and you were worried about the poinsettia). Even small amounts will cause the same symptoms we mentioned for poinsettias. Unlike amaryllis, these bulbs usually don't stand up to being saved over the years.

Christmas cactus (Schlumbergera sp.)

I have to tell you that what you buy labeled as a Christmas cactus is, indeed, not a Christmas cactus. It is a Thanksgiving cactus, which is why I hear people exclaim all the time that their cactus has bloomed and "It's not even Thanksgiving yet!"

So why do we call them Christmas cacti? One word -- marketing! Another term you might hear used to describe it is "zygo" cactus, which comes from the zygomorphic form of the flowers (plant-geek speak for "not round"). Actual Christmas cacti have round flowers, and their stems do not have sharp teeth on them like the Thanksgiving cacti do. Real Christmas cacti are hard to find, and I bet most people have never really seen one.

Both the Thanksgiving and Christmas cacti are in the Schlumbergera genus and are the result of crosses of several different species. Now, these are not your run-of-the-mill desert cacti. In fact, they aren't even from the desert; they are from the rain forest. To care for them, don't treat them like a desert cactus and let them dry out; these guys appreciate moist soil and high humidity. And just like the poinsettia, they bloom in response to having a long period of darkness and cooler temperatures.

Holiday plants class

Want to learn more about these holiday plants and how to take care of Christmas trees and greenery? Join me from 10 a.m. to noon Dec. 7 at the Habitat for Humanity ReStore, 301 Piedmont Road. The class is free, but you should register by visiting http://conta.cc/17O8NKi or calling Amy at 304-720-0141, ext. 22, and leaving a message.

John Porter is the WVU Extension Service agent for agriculture and natural resources in Kanawha County. He may be reached at john.porter@mail.wvu.edu or at 304-720-9573. Twitter: @WVgardenguru.


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