Some gifts can grow on you Care: How to keep holiday plants thriving in your home after the holidays.

December 21, 1997|By Ary Bruno | Ary Bruno,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Living plants -- from poinsettias to cyclamen and from showy amaryllis to modest ivies -- are becoming more popular as holiday presents and hostess gifts every year.

While we all love to get these living symbols of the season, with their bright colors and lush greenery, caring for them can draw mixed responses. Fear not: by learning just a little about what each plant needs, you can keep your gifts flourishing through the season and sometimes for years.

Here are some basic instructions on caring for a few of the most popular gift plants.


Poinsettias (euphorbia pulcherrima) abound this time of year. These tender tropicals are natives of Mexico, where they grow into shrubs or small trees. They come in cheerful colors -- including scarlet, ivory, pink and mauve -- and have been favorites in the United States since the 1880s.

Poinsettias require at least six hours of bright light a day to do their best, if they are to be kept blooming for more than a couple of weeks. Temperatures between 65 and 70 degrees are best, and it is well to keep them out of drafts and away from direct heat sources such as fireplaces and radiators.

They should be watered when the soil surface feels dry to the touch, and just until water drains out of the bottom of the pot. Do not let them stand in water-filled saucers because they are prone root rot. Newly bought plants do not require any fertilizer. I have had some bloom until mid-April without additional feeding.

If you intend to keep poinsettias as foliage plants, cut the plant back to about 10 inches when the colored bracts begin to fade in early spring. (The "flowers" are actually colored leaves, called bracts, which surround the true, tiny yellow flowers in the middle.)

Begin feeding it with a standard houseplant food and repot it in a slightly larger container to encourage root growth. By late spring, your poinsettia should have lots of new green leaves and can be moved outside to a sheltered position until frost. It can be maintained as a striking foliage plant for many years, but to rebloom requires a strict regimen of dark periods and light that is too long to pursue here.

Note: All parts of the plant are poisonous, though not so much as once thought. They should be kept out of the reach of small children and plant-nibbling pets.


Cyclamen (cyclamen persicum) is indigenous to the eastern Mediterranean. Its graceful, winged flowers of pink, rose, white or crimson rise on long stems above distinctive, heart-shaped leaves that are often handsomely marked.

Given cool growing conditions in a well-lighted spot out of direct sun, cyclamen can bloom for several months. Cool temperatures are the key here: between 50 and 65 degrees. The soil should be kept moist, but the pots should not stand in water. Humidity helps prolong flowering, and the pot may be placed on a pebbled tray filled with water for this effect.

Cyclamen are perennials with thick, tuberous roots, which can last for years and rebloom. They require rest after blooming, during which water is gradually withheld until the leaves die back, and then are not watered again for six to eight weeks.

Resume watering in midsummer and place the pot in a sheltered LTC location outdoors. When leaves reappear, it can be given regular feedings of flowering houseplant fertilizer. Bring the plant in before frost and it should rebloom by the holidays or shortly thereafter.

Cyclamen are poisonous and should be kept out of the reach of small children and pets.


Kalanchoe blossfeldiana is admired for its thick, waxy, green leaves and its dense clusters of small bright flowers. It is available in many colors, from lipstick red to cerise pink, yellow and orange, and has long-lasting flowers and a sturdy growth habit.

If you have a window facing south or west, kalanchoe would be a good plant for this spot. It does prefer the cool side, however, between 60 and 65 degrees at night and about 70 to 75 in the daytime.

Allow the soil to become moderately dry between waterings, but do not let the plant wilt. Avoid overwatering.

When flowering stops, cut back the old flower stalks and any very tall growth. The plant can be placed outside in a well-lighted spot during frost-free weather.

To get it to rebloom, imitate the shorter days of fall and winter. In mid-October, move the pot into a naturally lighted room -- without any artificial lighting after sunset. When buds appear in about six weeks, the plant can be returned to a bright place.

General rules

Other plants one often receives may include herb or ivy topiaries, miniature roses and houseplants. The key to keeping all healthy is mainly common sense. When in doubt, there are a few simple procedures:

* Pay attention to any tag or label that comes with the plant.

* Remember that all plants need water, but very few do well when left sitting in it.

* Remember that most potted plants will do well on a monthly or biweekly feeding of balanced houseplant fertilizer.

* Know that more plants are harmed by too much pampering than by too little. When in doubt, treat your plants as you would your children: exercise a little benign neglect, and just keep an eye on them.

Pub Date: 12/21/97

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