Town Green - November 2020
- Story by Christian Stephenson
Plants are a huge part of our holiday tradition and bring color into the home to help us celebrate. Many of the plants we enjoy during the holidays also make great gifts, allowing us to share our enjoyment of the season with others. Selecting healthy plants and proper care can keep these houseplants brightening our homes long into the new year.
Christmas trees are perhaps the most iconic of our holiday plants. While many of us have chosen to use artificial trees, there is something special about an authentic Christmas tree. Not only are these trees attractive, but they also help us support local farms. Christmas tree farms often have special events throughout the holidays, making the trip to select a tree an event for the whole family.
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One of the most important things to consider when selecting a tree is size. Avoid the tendency to overbuy. It is a good idea to measure your space prior to going and selecting a tree. Trees in the field often look smaller with the sky for a ceiling.
Pay attention to the width of the tree as well as the height. A tree may fit your space vertically but not horizontally. Most trees are trimmed to an 80 percent taper so that a 10-foot tall tree will be 8 feet wide at the bottom.
When you buy your tree, you should also test to make sure that it is fresh. To do this, run a branch through your hand. The needles should not come off easily when you do this. Outer branches should also be pliable. If they bend and snap easily the tree is too dry.
Some other ways you can detect a dry tree include excessive needle loss, discolored foliage, musty odor and wrinkled bark. If you have doubts about the freshness of a tree it is best to select another one. You can also ask questions of the retailer. Good questions to ask include what type of tree performs best in our climate and how often trees are delivered to the lot.
Once you get your tree home, get it in water as soon as possible. Making sure the tree has sufficient water is the most effective way of maintaining it through the season. The best way to provide water to the tree is a traditional reservoir stand. It is important to use a reservoir stand big enough for your tree.
A stand should provide one quart of water per inch of tree stem diameter. Regular tap water is sufficient to keep the tree fresh. Before placing the tree in its stand, make a fresh cut removing a ½-inch thick disk from the base of the tree. Avoid whittling down the sides of the trunk to fit the stand because the outer layers of wood are more efficient at taking up water. It is not necessary to drill a hole in the base of the trunk and this does not improve water uptake.
It is also important to be safe with our Christmas trees. Light sets should always be inspected before they are put on the tree and should be replaced if they are worn. Avoid overloading electrical circuits with too many lights. Use lights that produce low heat. These are safer and will reduce drying of the tree. Never put any part of a Christmas tree in a wood stove or fireplace. Many areas will have drop off points for retired Christmas trees.
Poinsettia plants are a Christmas favorite and remain the top-selling flowering potted plant in the United States. Poinsettias are now available in a wide variety of colors, giving many options for adding these attractive plants to your holiday decorations. A few simple steps can help make sure that your poinsettia stays beautiful throughout the Christmas season, and possibly quite a bit longer.
The colorful part of the poinsettia plant is the modified leaves called bracts. Poinsettia growers can apply plant dyes to the plant leading to many more color options. The poinsettia flower is the tiny yellow bead like structure that can be seen in the middle of the bract. A mature flower is slightly swollen with the cup showing nectar.
When buying your poinsettia, check the maturity of the plant. Avoid buying a plant from which the flowers have dropped. You should also look at the leaves and bracts of the plant before buying. There should be no tears or discoloration, and they should not show drooping or wilting.
The foliage of the plant should be dark green and should cover the stem to the soil line of the plant. The plant should also be the right size for the container it is in. As a general rule, the plant should be about 2 ½ times the size of the container. Lastly, be sure there are no insect pests such as aphids or whiteflies on the plant.
The stems of poinsettias are brittle and can be broken easily, so it’s important to be careful when transporting the plant. Plants are often sold with paper or plastic sleeves, and these can hide damage. Be careful when you remove the sleeve to make sure you do not damage the plant. Poinsettias need six hours of indirect sunlight a day and do best when the temperature is 72˚F during the day and 60˚F at night.
A common misconception is that poinsettia plants are toxic. Fortunately this is not the case, and eating poinsettia leaves does not present a significant danger to children or pets. Eating a few poinsettias may cause an upset stomach due to irritation, but the leaves also have an unpleasant taste, so this is rarely a problem. People with sensitive skin or allergies to latex should wash their hands after touching poinsettias as the sap can cause irritation.
Ornamental pepper is another great option for bringing in some holiday color. These plants produce peppers in many different shapes, sizes and colors. Colors of ornamental peppers include purple, white, red, yellow, orange, brown and blue. A single plant can have as many as three different colors of peppers. The shape of the pepper makes them look a little like lights on a Christmas tree, making these a wonderful option for a holiday houseplant.
Ornamental peppers also grow well as a landscape plant here in South Mississippi. Ornamental peppers need full sun or bright light and should be watered regularly. However, the growing plant needs little fertilization. Peppers do best in rooms that stay between 50 and 70˚F. Ornamental peppers have a bitter taste and are very hot and so it is not suggested that they be eaten.
Christmas cactuses are true cactuses native to rainforests in South America. Many varieties are available that vary in leaf shape and time of blooming. Because of variation in when they bloom, these plants are often also called Thanksgiving cactuses.
Generally, aTthanksgiving cactus will bloom in November and December with lavender, red, white, or salmon colored flowers. Christmas cactuses bloom from December to March with pink or red flowers. The leaf margins of these later blooming varieties are smoother, making it easier to tell when the plant will show off its flowers.
Christmas cactuses require bright light and high humidity though they also prefer cooler temperatures. Humidity can be increased by grouping plants together or placing water in a gravel filled container near the plants. Coarse soil with good drainage is best and should be kept moist but not overwatered as excessive water can lead to damaged roots.
One of the best things about these cactuses is that they are very easy to propagate. Single leaf sections can be cut and placed in moist soil and will root readily. This allows the beauty of the plant to be shared with friends and family for years to come.
There are many other plants that make great additions to the holidays. Your local garden center or nursery will have options to suit almost any purpose you can imagine. Bringing plants indoors brightens your environment and adds to the enjoyment of the holidays.
If you have questions about plants for the holidays, your county Extension agent will be pleased to assist. In Hancock County, we can be reached by phone at (228) 467-5456, or by email at C.Stephenson@msstate.edu.