Caring for Holiday Plants

Picture of poinsettias

Holiday gift plants are fun to give and a joy to receive. By the time the holidays roll around, many gardeners are already longing for the smell of foliage greens and the glories of their flowers.

By Barbara Perry Lawton

This article was first published in The Gateway Gardener December 2010 issue.

Holiday gift plants are fun to give and a joy to receive. By the time the holidays roll around, many gardeners are already longing for the smell of foliage greens and the glories of their flowers. At the same time, some may wonder how best to care for their growing gifts.

The first rule is to save the label and read it carefully. The second guideline is to realize that many holiday plants should be enjoyed like floral arrangements—that is, once the flowers have faded and gone by, you might as well pitch the pot. Many holiday plants are difficult if not impossible to get to rebloom. Don’t feel guilty about pitching them once they’ve gone by, just as you would a floral arrangement.

Watering is a key to success. More house plants are killed by over-watering than any other single cause. Keep the soil moist but not soggy in most cases. Cacti and other succulent plants should be kept dryer. Let their soil dry out completely before giving it a thorough watering.

How can you tell when containerized plants need watering? This is especially difficult in the case of larger containers. I use a moisture meter—available for about $10 at independent nurseries. If the gift plant arrives enveloped in a decorative foil, punch holes in the bottom so that water can drain. When feeding, use an all-purpose liquid house plant fertilizer at half the recommended strength.

Following are a few specifics about some of our favorite holiday plants:

Poinsettia (Euphorbia pulcherrima)

This colorful tropical originally from Mexico has insignificant flowers but features spectacular floral bracts. It is these that come in bright reds, pinks, yellows and whites. This plant will be at its best in a rich soil, plenty of water and excellent drainage. Bright light suits it well but keep it away from both hot and cold drafts.

You can force your poinsettia to rebloom by keeping it in full darkness for 12 hours each night beginning in October, but why go to all that trouble when new plants are so inexpensive. Pitch the old ones by late winter or earlier.

Christmas Cactus (Schlumbergera hybrids)

Christmas cactus, originally from Brazil, has flowers in shades of red, white, pink, violet and even yellow. Easy to grow in a light, well-draining soil, these plants need to be slightly moist—don’t allow it to dry out but don’t drown it either. Light to partial shade will suit them.

A good plant for year-round enjoyment, Christmas cactus probably will rebloom if you cut back on watering and have slightly lower temperature three month before you want blooms. When buds appear, move to a warmer location and feed every couple of weeks.

Azaleas (Rhododendron spp.)

Azaleas sport bright flowers of red, white and pink plus variegations. The foliage is crisp and tidy, with shiny leathery leaves. Most of the winter-blooming gift azaleas are hothouse plants and thus not hardy in our region. Enjoy them as long as they bloom, then add them to the compost pile. Keep them in bright light but not direct sunlight. They require an acidic soil (special fertilizer for azaleas!), plenty of water plus good drainage, and a rather cool temperature for best performance.

Cyclamen (Cyclamen persicum)

The heart-shaped silvery leaves are attractive in their own right. Crowned with large flowers of red, pink or white, cyclamen is a handsome plant originally from Mediterranean regions. It’s also a plant requiring lots of care. It is at its best with a cool temperature, lots of water preferably from the bottom, and a humid environment. Although cyclamen loves the sunlight, it will endure in a bright room. This is another plant to add to the compost heap once its flowers have faded.

Amaryllis (Hippeastrum)

This South American native is a favorite bulbous plant that has sturdy flower stalks tipped by grand huge flowers of reds, pinks, oranges and whites as well as variegated combinations. This one is easy to grow. Once planted in any good potting soil with the shoulders of the bulb above the soil surface, it should be kept moist but not over-watered. Keep it in a warm room with bright but not direct sunlight. Once amaryllis has finished blooming, le the bulb rest for three to four months, then pot it up once again and enjoy the flowers once more.


These are but a few of the favorite holiday plants. There are others that you might receive, including cinerarias and Jerusalem cherries or even a planter of herbs to enjoy during the cold season. If in doubt as to the needed care, check with the florist, the gift giver or Google. The important thing is to enjoy the plants and the promise they bring of spring to come.

Barbara Perry Lawton is a writer, author, speaker and photographer. She has served as manager of publications for Missouri Botanical Garden and as weekly garden columnist for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. The author of a number of gardening and natural history books, and contributor to many periodicals, she has earned regional and national honors for her writing and photography. Barbara is also a Master Gardener and volunteers at the Missouri Botanical Garden in St. Louis, MO.