Tricks for Keeping Poinsettias and Christmas Cactus Happy

Submitted 2 years ago
Created by
Henry Homeyer

Florists, garden centers and grocery stores are loaded with color right now - plants that are bright, cheery, and hard to kill. They are just what we need in these dark, dreary days of early winter when the sun goes down before 5pm. Christmas cactus and poinsettias are great plants that are affordable and easy. I recommend them highly.

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You may think that poinsettias have big red flowers atop handsome green foliage. Wrong! The colorful parts (they now come in white, pink, plum, burgundy, cinnamon and lemon) are actually bracts, or modified leaves. The flowers are actually just pea-sized yellow blossoms in the middle of the bracts.

Poinsettia flowers are just these little yellow things in the center of the bracts

Poinsettias were introduced here in 1828 by President Andrew Jackson’s ambassador to Mexico, but only became popular holiday flowers in the 1960’s. A grower in California promoted them heavily on TV, giving plants to the likes of Johnny Carson who kept them on his desk during the Tonight Show.

If you buy a poinsettia, start it off right: be sure it is enclosed in a sleeve or a bag on the way home – they hate the cold. But don’t place it near a woodstove or radiator, either. The ideal temperature is 68 to 72 degrees, but my house is rarely that warm, and they do fine with daytime temps in the sixties and night-time temps a little cooler. Anything below 50 degrees is fatal – but we wouldn’t be happy then, either.

Speckled bracts and white ones are popular now

Poinsettias do not require direct sunshine. In fact, bright indirect light is best; six hours is all that is required. And don’t over-water them. Root rot results from keeping roots constantly soggy. Water once a week but check the soil first by probing the top inch with your finger. If it feels moist, you can wait. Experts say it is best to water by placing the pot in a saucer or water and letting it soak up for 15 minutes, but I never do that. I water from the top and it works just fine. I often judge dryness by the weight of the pot, too. The heavier it is, the more water is in the pot. Fertilization is not recommended when they are in their bloom cycle.  

Poinsettias for sale at Longacre's Nursery in Lebanon, NH

Although I don’t usually do it, you can keep your poinsettia over the summer and hope to get it to produce colorful bracts next winter. These plants are photoperiodic, which means they are sensitive to daylight length. They need 14 hours of darkness each night in the fall if they are to “bloom”. Even electric lights on in their room can interfere with the coloring-up process, I’ve read.

Christmas cactus often bloom for Christmas, though if you keep them for years they may bloom at other times. Buy one now, and you’re pretty much guaranteed blossoms through the holidays. Properly cared for, a Christmas cactus can be handed down to your kids … and later, their kids.

Christmas cactus are not expensive if you buy them in small pots like these

Like poinsettias, a Christmas cactus needs bright, indirect light and moderate temperatures. Over-watering can be lethal, so if you are starting a new plant from a cutting, add some sand to the potting mix for increased drainage. One part sand to three parts potting mix is about right.

Christmas cacti are not true cacti – they wouldn’t survive in a desert – so you shouldn’t let them get too dry, either. Feel the soil weekly – when the soil is dry an inch below the surface, it’s time to water. If you water too much or too little you will notice flower buds falling off.

A Christmas cactus does best with humidity in the 50 to 60% range. If you have a woodstove, chances are your house is drier than that in the winter. You can remedy the situation by filling a wide saucer with small stones, add water, and placing the potted plant on the stones. As the water evaporates, it adds humidity to the air around the plant.

Aside from these colorful plants, I like to add some greenery around the house in winter. I have a number of foliage plants, but also like to pick some pachysandra outdoors to keep in vases, or to fill out bouquets of flowers I buy.

Pachysandra is available outdoors for greenery

Pachysandra is a shade-loving vine with year-round glossy leaves. Even with snow on the ground you can pick stems and place them in a vase of water, where they will thrive all winter. The leaves stay glossy and green and will develop good roots in a vase. In the spring I plant them outdoors in shady places as a ground cover. Right now I have a vase full of pachysandra stems with a few twigs of red winterberries, which is quite festive.

This will look good all winter indoors so long as I don't let it go dry

Despite my careful attention to my outdoor plants - both vegetables and flowers - I have never paid near as much attention to indoor plants. Perhaps I need a break in winter, when they are needing my care the most. So it is important to me that house plants be relatively undemanding. Poinsettias and Christmas cactus fill the bill.

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Henry is the author of 4 gardening books.  Visit my personal website by clicking here.  

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