With all the hustle and bustle this time of year, it is refreshing for me to give and receive something green and living for the holidays. It may be the ever-popular poinsettia, a Norfolk Island pine topped with a red bow, or a kit with amaryllis or paper white narcissus bulbs.
The poinsettia is known around the world as the Christmas flower. It is native to Mexico and known by many names like flor de fuego (fire flower), flor de Navidad (Christmas flower), and flor de la Nochebuena (flower of the Holy Night).
Dr. Joel Roberts Poinsett, who was our nation’s minister to Mexico from 1825 to 1830, brought cuttings home with him to South Carolina. It was because of his interest and work in developing this flower that it became known as the poinsettia. It was a scruffy bush with small bracts that turned a red color in the fall and early winter.
After decades of crossing different parent lines, we have the large beautiful flowers we see today. Not only are the larger sized flowers appealing, but there is also a wonderful spectrum of colors to choose from. These natural colors do not include the sprayed and sparkled flowers that I believe take away from the true beauty and nature of the plant. The actual flower does not have petals, only small yellow button-like structures in the center of the bracts. The color of the flower comes from bracts which are modified leaves that turn color in late fall when there are short daylight hours. Poinsettias grow in temperatures between 60 and 70 degrees, in bright light, and in a well-drained soil that is allowed to dry slightly between watering.
Norfolk Island pine trees, or Araucaria heterophylla, are native to tropical areas of the world where they may grow as tall as 30 to 40 feet. In the Midwest and areas where the temperature drops below 50 degrees, they are grown indoors as house plants. They are often decorated as miniature Christmas trees and sold as such for the holidays. The branches can hold small light ornaments; however, if the branches are weighed down, they will not spring back, and the plant will have a drooping appearance. Keep Norfolk Island pines away from drafts, and water sparingly.
Bulb kits will include the container, soil and the bulb to be planted. Both amaryllis and paper white narcissus are easy bulbs to force indoors during the winter months. It is fun to watch the plants grow and bloom, especially in January when the weather outside can be dull and dreary. Amaryllis flowers will bloom for a long time. After the flowers have faded, the flower stalks can be cut off and the leaves allowed to continue to grow. The plant needs to complete its growing cycle. Keep the plant growing all winter, spring, and summer and allow it to go dormant in the fall. If the bulb has been properly watered and fertilized during the growing season, it will produce a flower bud for the next season. Paper white narcissus are grown in either soil or on top of pebbles with just enough water to touch the bottom of the bulbs. The plants grow quickly once the roots have formed, so keep the bulbs in a cool window. The small pure white flowers are very fragrant and almost overwhelming for just one room. Israel is the paper white bulb growing capital of the world. These bulbs are hard to carry over and are best enjoyed just for one season.
Margo Hansen is the director of programs at the Bickelhaupt Arboretum. She has a degree in Horticulture from ISU and is the host of The Great Green Garden Show on KROS every Saturday morning.