Sunday, November 27, 2011

Beyond Poinsettias

The marbled, heart shaped foliage of the cyclamen contrasts
beautifully with the smaller leaved coastal rosemary
(Westringia frucitosa).
My design

I used to love Poinsettias. From traditional red and creamy white to vibrant pinks and dusky burgundy. There are speckled ones, variegated ones, big ones and little ones. Surely something for everyone; the perfect hostess gift or table centerpiece. Yes I used to love them – until I worked at a nursery where I had to hand water thousands of them every day. It was at that point my affection began to wane and I begged my confused husband NOT to get me any more!  

So what other festive plants are there to add a little holiday spirit to our homes?
Florist’s cyclamen (Cyclamen persicum) are as popular for their striking variegated foliage as they are for their large flowers in shades of red, white, magenta or pink. These can bloom for many weeks in a cool, brightly lit room or outside on a covered, protected porch. Do not try to water these ‘overhead’. Rather, when the potting medium feels dry to the touch, place the plant in a shallow bowl of water for 10 minutes, allow to drain then return to its decorative container. As each flower fades, nip it off cleanly at the base with a small pair of scissors or gently pull the entire stem away.

The double flower of the Christmas cactus
almost looks like a fuchsia.
Photo credit;
My Mum always had a Christmas cactus (Schlumbergera bridgesii) in full bloom for the holiday season and it just got bigger and better every year. I suspect most of us have memories of ‘Grandma’s cactus’ which seemed to be as much a Christmas tradition as the tree itself. This might be the perfect choice for your brown-thumbed gardening friends as Christmas cacti prefer to be root bound can tolerate some neglect providing they have bright, indirect light. A profusion of tubular flowers covers this houseplant for several weeks over the Christmas period; select one which has plenty of buds for the longest lasting display.

'Jacob' hellebore in a simple mixed design
Photo credit; Skagit Gardens
I love to use hellebores in the shade garden but there are a couple of varieties which make perfect indoor specimens too. The Christmas rose (Helleborus niger) 'Gold Collection' grown by Skagit Gardens features several outstanding varieties. A favorite at this time of year is ‘Jacob’ with its pure white, slightly fragrant blooms held above sturdy burgundy stems. These are set off by handsome dark green foliage making a nice compact variety just 12-13” wide and 10-12” tall. Placed in a simple basket with a delicate fern and decorative bow, this would make a beautiful hostess gift and take only minutes to assemble. It can then be planted outside after the holidays where it will continue to grow and multiply; the gift that keeps on giving!

Orchids may not immediately come to mind when we think of a holiday plant yet their sculptural form makes them perfect for an elegant display. The Phalaenopsis orchids are the easiest to grow (even I can keep them alive long enough to enjoy them over Christmas). Place a white orchid, still in its nursery pot, in the center of a clear glass bowl and surround this with small silver baubles. Or incorporate your own holiday colors into the scheme – red and gold or copper and teal for example. I also like to replace the usual grower’s stake with curly willow and re-tie the orchid with a small piece of ribbon or raffia. This works nicely into the display and is much more artistic than a bright green stick and plastic clip!

A stunning gift - if you can bear to part with it.
Photo credit;
Amaryllis (Hippeastrum sp.) are perhaps the showiest of the holiday plants with multiple, impossibly large blooms borne on fleshy, thick stems. In festive colors of red and white, with several bi-colored varieties, these have true party spirit.

Remember if this is to be a hostess gift, it is hard for your friends to stop what they are doing to find a suitable decorative container and even harder to remember where the protective trivets are! Select a simple pot to set off the plant of your choice and present it together with a cork or acrylic trivet to protect polished furniture. Your thoughtfulness will be much appreciated! Finally include a care sheet for watering – your garden nursery should be able to provide this or they can be found online.

Poinsettias are a beautiful, traditional way to celebrate the season. But if your friends have over-indulged they may be glad of something a little different this year!


  1. My comment has not appeared! Never mind second time lucky. Every year we get given a poinsettia and every year I say I'm going to get it to flower next year. So far it's miserable failure. And I have just been given another poinsettia. At least I didn't have to water hundreds!

  2. Janet, I did manage to get mine to re-bloom once but wondered why I'd bothered.....!

  3. I worked for a florist shop one Christmas sticking fake pine cones and gift boxes in poinsettias, and ended up feeling the same way. My aunt in Florida, though, has some growing in her yard, and they really are beautiful when allowed to do their own thing. The alternates you suggest are wonderful--I had no idea hellebores could be grown indoors!

  4. Stacy - I can't imagine what is must be to have these growing in your garden - they seem so fragile since we can't even have them in a draft!

    I don't recommend actually growing hellebores indoors but certainly for a month or so they are fine. After that I would fear red spider mite due to our indoor heating! Best of both worlds though.

  5. I call poinsettias the sacrifice plant and yes after living in Florida and seeing one in my back yard doing it's own thing it made me sad to see them thrown away after every Christmas. I love these new suggestions esp. the cyclamen.

  6. You have a good point there Anonymous. Poinsettias are rarely kept for the following year but most of these alternatives can be kept indefinitely.


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