Here we go, again. This column appears on a holiday. It is Christmas and once again, there is a Garden Writing rule I am required to follow. This must be the third or fourth time this year that I have had to conform to The Rules. Today, I have to write something horticulturally Christmas.
Which got me thinking about a friend we have, a real collector of Christmas stuff, so much so that after moving, she had to use a rental storage unit when it wasn’t the season. And that got me wondering if there were folks who have collections of Christmas plants they bring out in bloom every year.
This sounds like something my father might have done, had he not been color blind and pretty much oblivious to red. Surely, each plant would be cared for so it was ready to bloom in early December.
Obviously, his collection would contain at least several poinsettias, Euphorbia pulocherrima, because these require a bit of skill to re-bloom. Red bracts or not, he actually did grow these because he liked the small yellow flower in their centers. Most people just toss poinsettias, but he would regenerate the bracts and flowers.
Here in Alaska, my suggestion is to keep these plants where they will get a few hours of sunlight every day — a west- or south-facing window or, come on, under your lights. Water when the top inch gets dry, clean up dead leaves and cut back a bit if they fall.
After Memorial Day, clip the plants back to 6-inch stems. Grow them outdoors, in good sun. You can clip the very tips to make the plants bushier, if necessary. Then move them back indoors on Labor Day and give them 14 hours of complete darkness for two months. The bracts should form and you are good to go.
Of course, the so-called “Christmas cacti,” Schlumbergera truncata — the one with leaf tips that look like crab claws — would be in the collection of keepers. These are triggered into blooming by shortening days and cooling temperatures in the fall. Leaving them up near a window in an unlighted room starting in September does the trick.
Next, though I am a purist and will always associate amaryllis with Valentine’s Day, many include them in their Christmas plant collection because they are usually red. These bulbs come ready to flower; just add water. To get them to re-bloom, clip the flower stalk after it starts to die back and continue to grow the plant, giving it good light. Take them outdoors after the last frost.
On Labor Day, take amaryllis inside, lay pots on their sides, and let the plants go dormant by withholding water. Keep them cool and in the dark. Take them out and water after two months. Hopefully, a new flower will appear in time for the holidays.
Oh, can’t forget the “Christmas begonia,” which is a cross between a winter-flowering begonia, B. socotrana and a semi-tuberous one, B. dregei. These are not that easy to keep over, but they will stay in flower if kept cool, 50 to 60 degrees. Then try to grow it as a houseplant, keeping dead stuff cut back. Given natural light after September, it may bloom again next year. Hey, gardeners should like a challenge.
Of course, you may find the same begonias we use as annual bedding plants, aka fibrous rooted begonia. They are much easier to care for and are usually treated as annuals. Give them good light and room temperatures and then in late spring plant them outdoors.
Regardless of whether you are a collector, you might want to consider at least trying to keep your holiday plants over and getting them to bloom again next year. What have you got to lose?
Jeff’s Alaska garden calendar
Alaska Botanical Garden: Did you get or give a family membership? What a great day to do so: alaskabg.org. While you are there check out the classes, info for the light display and more.
Christmas tree recycling: Yes, recycling will be at Carrs/Safeway lots in Anchorage, Eagle River and Palmer from Dec. 28-Jan. 15. Trees must be clean, so consider what you put on yours.