November 26, 2014

Winter Blooming Plants: Holiday Cactus, Amaryllis, Poinsettias, and Paper Whites

Amaryllis 'Desire'Something about blooms and fragrance during the winter months gives us a little boost that assures us spring's promise can't be too far away. Whether a gift Amaryllis or Poinsettia arrives on your doorstep, or you treat yourself to a bulb-forcing kit, the color and fragrance of these blooms will fill your heart and home with cheer.

Several plants bloom during the winter months, some more prolifically than others, depending on where you live. We'll be discussing the most common and easiest to grow: Amaryllis (Amaryllis Hippeastrum spp.); "Thanksgiving," "Christmas," or "Zygo" cactus (Schlumbergera spp.); bulbs to force such as hyacinth (Hyacinthus orientalis) or "Paperwhites" (Narcissus tazetta); and the much-loved Poinsettia (Euphorbia pulcherrima). These plants all have origins in tropical areas, but have been coaxed to adjust to the conditions in most homes. They all require cool room temperatures and filtered light, and some also require some advance preparation such as chilling.

The name Amaryllis springs from the Greek word meaning "to shine or sparkle". These luscious blooms do more than that—they fill a room with their fabulous color and size, but most varieties have no fragrance. Native to tropical regions of Central and South America, Amaryllis bulbs are easy to grow and they are readily available. 
Amaryllis 'Nymph'
A beautiful variegated Amaryllis. photo: Toni Leland
A large, firm bulb with many root buds on the base will perform well. All you need is a pot slightly larger than the bulb (Amaryllis likes to be pot-bound), good drainage, and quality sterile planting medium. About 6 to 8 weeks before you want it to bloom, plant the bulb with the top third above the soil line. Water once from both the top and bottom, taking care that no water gets into the top of the bulb. Place the pot in a room-temperature location, away from direct sunlight. Do not water again until green growth appears. When that happens, place the pot in a tray so that you can water it from the bottom about every 3 days; excessive watering will cause the bulb to rot. Once up, the leaves and stem will grow quickly, providing a veritable slideshow of transformation. Most Amaryllis bulbs produce four blooms within 2 to 3 days of each other; these will last several days to a week if the plant is in a cool room away from direct light. Additionally, removing the anthers containing pollen will prolong the bloom. When the show is over, these wonderful plants can be over-wintered and encouraged to bloom again the following year.
Thanksgiving Cactus (Zygo)
A Holiday/Thanksgiving Cactus.
 photo: Peter Coxhead (Wikimedia Commons, GFDLv1.2)

Another beautiful winter bloomer is the cactus (genus Schlumbergera) known by many names: Thanksgiving cactus, Christmas cactus, Zygo cactus, holiday cactus, or crab cactus. (The plant that blooms in the late fall and winter months is not the same as the Easter or Whitsun cactus, which is of another genus—Hatiora.) Interestingly, the Schlumbergera cultivars are divided into two groups: S. truncata which flower earlier and are what we know as Thanksgiving cactus, and the Buckleyi Group (S. russelliana) which flower closer to Christmas. Though the two cultivars look similar, the Truncata Group have yellow pollen and stem segments with pointed teeth, while the Buckleyi Group have pink pollen and rounded stem segments with more symmetrical teeth.

These much-loved holiday plants are found in their native habitat on trees or rocks in southeastern Brazil's coastal mountains. They have been cultivated as ornamental plants since the very early 1800's, and today's Thanksgiving or Christmas cactus is relatively easy to grow, maintain, and propagate. All the cultivars require low light (no direct sunlight) and consistently lightly moist free-draining, organic-rich soil, such as peat or leaf mold. Day length controls flowering: plants should be in complete darkness for about 12 hours in order to generate bud formation; temperatures below 60˚F (16˚C) will slow the process. Be sure not to overwater, which will cause all the buds to drop off. Want to grow another plant? And another? Simply twist off a short piece of stem (2 or 3 segments long) and allow to dry for up to a week. When the broken end has "hardened off," insert the piece into growing medium and place in a warm spot out of direct light.

Narcissus Paperwhites
Narcissus Paperwhites are excellent bulbs to force for
winter bloom.
photo: Beezhive on Wikimedia, GFDL v1.2
Fragrant bowls of Paperwhites, tulips, hyacinths, crocus, or daffodils can brighten even the dreariest winter day. The easiest way to have these beauties in your home is to purchase a kit from a garden department or floral gift shop. You can also buy your own bulbs, choose your own container, purchase planting medium, find the perfect rocks or marbles, and embark on a few weeks' preparation for the final display. Paperwhites are highly fragrant and have the benefit of not needing to be chilled before planting. Tulips, hyacinths, crocus, and daffodils must be potted and chilled for between 15 and 17 weeks in order to force the bloom. Chilling space can be an unheated garage or shed, a cold frame, or a refrigerator (although bulbs dry out quickly in a refrigerator). Once the bulbs have formed an adequate root system, bring them in to a cool location until active growth begins, then move to a warmer location. Do not overwater.

Last but not least, December's darling—the Poinsettia. 
Poinsettia 'Mottled Susan Reimer'
"Mottled Susan Reimer" Poinsettia. photo: Toni Leland
This beauty has been documented back to the 14th century, but came to the United States in 1825 with Mexican Ambassador Joel Robert Poinsett. The traditional reds and whites are lovely, but we now have over 100 varieties from which to choose—purples, pinks, marbled, spotted, variegated. Oh my. Check out Not your grandma's Poinsettia!

Choose one or all of these beautiful winter bloomers and brighten up those dreary days.

No comments:

Post a Comment