Not only are they special for their blooms, they also have a rich history filled with legend, myth and adventure. Read on to discover origin stories, care instructions, and bloom-extending secrets to help you get the most from your holiday plants.
Amaryllis: The foolish Greek girl (genus Amaryllis)
Native to South America, amaryllis bulbs are now most often imported from the Netherlands and South Africa. Unlike other holiday favorites, the amaryllis doesn’t naturally bloom in winter. Instead, commercial growers force the bloom so we can enjoy its cheerful display around the holidays.
The amaryllis is also a holiday favorite with legendary origins. According to the Greeks, there was once a beautiful young lady called Amaryllis who loved a handsome young shepherd. Unfortunately, he cared only for plants, and told the young ladies of the village that he would fall in love with whoever could bring him a flower he’d never seen before. After consulting her village’s High Priestess, Amaryllis stabbed herself in the heart with a golden arrow and walked to the shepherd’s cottage every day for a month, leaving a trail of blood behind her. On the 30th day, Amaryllis noticed beautiful red flowers springing up along the path. The boy was so stunned by the new flower’s beauty that he immediately fell in love. He named the flower Amaryllis, and they lived happily ever after (with no more injuries).
To plant an amaryllis bulb, soak in lukewarm water for several hours and then bury up to the neck in potting soil (taking care not to damage the roots). Amaryllis plants like warmth and direct light, but water the bulb sparingly until a stem appears. Bulbs will flower 7-10 weeks after planting, and will last longer in cooler locations. Consider staggering the plantings every two weeks to enjoy continuous blooms.
After the plant has stopped blooming, cut off the old flowers. When the stem begins to sag, trim back to the top of the bulb, watering and fertilizing as normal until the leaves turn yellow. When that happens, cut leaves back two inches from the bulb and remove from the soil.
Store bulbs in the crisper of your refrigerator for at least six weeks (don’t keep apples in there or they will sterilize the bulbs), and then plant again approximately six weeks before you want them to bloom. To achieve blooming over the holidays, plant amaryllis bulbs around the beginning of October.
Poinsettia: flower of the holy night (Euphorbia pulcherrima)
Native to southern Mexico, the iconic poinsettia originates from the town of Taxco de Alarcón, known for its rich Aztec heritage. Before the arrival of the Spanish, the Aztecs cultivated the plant for medicinal uses and for use as a dye. Later, Franciscan priests posted to Taxco used the plant as a Christmas decoration, surrounding their nativity scenes with its brilliant red blooms. Legend says that a poor Mexican girl wishing to give the baby Jesus a Christmas gift witnessed the plant’s creation when her handful of roadside weeds transformed into bright red flowers. For this reason, Mexicans call the plants Flores de Noche Buena, or Flowers of the Holy Night.
In 1823, the first US ambassador to Mexico, Joel Roberts Poinsett, travelled to Taxco and fell in love with the noche buena plant. He sent several plants back to his home in Charleston, South Carolina, for cultivation in the greenhouses on his plantation. He also sent some to a friend in Philadelphia, who gave more to a friend in Pennsylvania. By 1836 the plants were widespread and commonly known as ‘poinsettias’.
The poinsettia is toxic when ingested but can be used topically for skin ailments and pain relief thanks to antibacterial and pain-relieving qualities. Like many tropical houseplants, poinsettias also improve the air quality in your home.
Poinsettias are very sensitive to sudden changes in light, temperature, and moisture. To minimize stress when the plant enters your home, place poinsettias in a sunny spot and strive to keep the temperature below 75ºF. Additionally, dose with soluble fertilizer (1/2 teaspoon of 15-15-15 in a quart of warm water) immediately after purchasing. To ensure lengthy blooms, keep the soil damp and evenly moist.
How to keep your poinsettia alive after Christmas
Usually by mid-January, a poinsettia’s blooms will have dried up and the plant will look like it’s dying. Cut back 3-5 inches above the soil and place in a cool location with good air circulation. The temperature during this phase of the plant’s life should be around 55 to 59ºF, so depending on your location, storing in a garage could be a good option. Water less frequently, but don’t let the plant dry out.
As spring approaches, place your poinsettia in a bigger pot. Bring the plant back into the house and resume watering regularly. When the outside temperature reaches 60ºF at night, you can place poinsettias outdoors in a semi-shady spot to live for the summer. Pinch shoots once to shape the plant.
In late August, bring your poinsettia back to a sunny window and fertilize every week with soluble fertilizer. A poinsettia requires long nights to flower, so move to a dark room or cover with a box between 5pm and 8am from through October and November. If you have succeeded this far, you will see new flower buds that should bloom right at Christmas.
Christmas cactus: The Brazilian tree cactus (genus Schlumbergera)
Also known as the Thanksgiving, crab or holiday cactus, the Christmas cactus is a succulent plant native to a small region in southern Brazil with a cool, shady, and humid microclimate. In this coastal mountain area, the plants need very little soil and prefer growing in rock crevices and on mossy tree branches.
While its history isn’t as legendary as the poinsettia, the Christmas cactus is no less fascinating. In 1814, the president of England’s Royal Horticultural Society sent explorer Allan Cunningham to Brazil to document and collect new plant species, particularly ones that might have commercial value. Here Cunningham discovered an interesting cactus that lived in trees and brought it back to England. Introduced to Europe by 1818, the cactus became a very popular houseplant that was crossbred to create a variety of beautiful colors. Because these plants bloom conveniently around the holidays, they are now marketed as Christmas cactus.
Christmas cactus care
Christmas cacti don’t need a large pot, but the soil should be well drained and contain some sand or grit. Additionally, they don’t need a lot of water, but they dislike extremes. For this reason it’s best to keep them slightly moist, allowing only the top layer of soil to dry out. The plants also need shade to flower and should be placed well away from sunny windows come fall. In fact, to form a flower, a Christmas cactus needs at least 12 hours of darkness each night; 16 hours for at least 8 days will almost guarantee a flower bud. To ensure flowers for the holiday season, cover the plant with a box or bag for at least 12 hours a day. Once flower buds form, dispense with covering and enjoy the brilliant display. After the plants finish flowering, reduce water levels to help induce dormancy and give plants a rest in preparation for the next growth cycle.
If your Christmas cactus gets too big, or you want to make more of them to share, twist off a stem at least a few segments long and let it dry for a few days. The broken end will form a callus, which can be planted in a new pot.
Have you had success keeping holiday flowers alive and blooming? Share your tips or recommendations for your favorite holiday plants.