Plants of the Holiday Season

— Written By

Care and Cultivation of Poinsettia and Amaryllis

David Higginbotham – Master Gardener℠ volunteer of Chatham County

Poinsettia

There are several plants that are associated with the Christmas season. One of the most common is the Poinsettia because of its colorful bracts. Bracts are  actually modified leaves, and the small yellow parts in the centers of the bracts are the true flowers. There are over 100 cultivars of poinsettia available today, and some of these cultivars can maintain their color in your home for several months. The poinsettia is natively a small tree found in the tropical areas of Central America and was introduced to the U.S. by Joel Poinset, who was the first ambassador to Mexico.

When shopping for plants, be sure to choose those that have the most brightly colored bracts (or the color appropriate for the cultivar) and have dark green foliage covering the stems. Stay away from plants whose leaves have dropped or wilted, and those with damaged and faded bracts. For many traditional cultivars, the number of true flowers is an indicator of freshness, as they drop off with time, but some of the newer cultivars have fewer true flowers to begin with and tend to last longer. Since it’s native to the tropics, poinsettias will suffer damage if subjected to temperatures below 50℉. These cold temperatures can cause the bracts to develop discolorations of blue or white and may even cause the leaves to drop.

Once you have selected a healthy plant and take it home make sure that the soil stays wet but not saturated. If the pot is covered with a decorative foil or plastic make sure to cut a few holes for the water to drain, but remember that the poinsettia will not tolerate the soil drying out. You will also want to apply a half-strength fertilizer solution about once a month. Keep the plant where daytime temperatures will stay between 70-75℉, but cooler nighttime temps can help maintain the coloration. Poinsettia likes a well-lit area and can tolerate direct sunlight from windows, but this may cause the plant to use more water, so be sure to keep an eye on the soil moisture level. If you want to keep the plant after the holiday season you can. Simply treat the plant as you would any other houseplant following the guidelines above. It is even possible to re-flower the plant the following Christmas by subjecting the plant to prolonged periods of complete darkness. For more information on caring for poinsettias, see the fact sheet of NC State Extension. Also, check out the nationally-renowned poinsettia breeding program at NC State University.

Amaryllis

Amaryllis is another showy plant that is often given as a holiday gift for our gardening friends, and with proper handling, can be induced to re-flower. Amaryllis is native to tropical areas of South America, but with proper handling and cold protection, can be made to re-flower. A great gift idea for your gardening friends might be to include the appropriately sized pot and growing medium with the amaryllis bulb itself. Many of the bulbs found in local stores have a diameter of  5 inches or larger, so get a pot that leaves at least an inch or more of soil around the bulb. A slightly acidic (pH 6.0-6.5) soil medium is best. An equal mix of peat and perlite makes a good mix for amaryllis, but do not use a soil mix that contains pine bark. After you plant the bulb in your pot, wet the soil completely with lukewarm water and keep it moist but not wet; watering once a week watering is usually sufficient, but avoid watering over the top of the bulb. Keep the plant at around 70-75℉ until the bulb begins to make roots and leaves and a flower stalk begin to grow, at which point maintain the temperature between 65 and 75℉. Keep it in a well-lit area, a southern facing window is a good location but avoid direct sunlight when the plant is in flower. It is also important to fertilize the plant as it is growing by either using a slow release fertilizer that will last several months or a liquid (quick release) fertilizer 2-4 times each month. Amaryllis can be planted outside in zones 8-10, but there is some risk of it succumbing to the extreme cold of our 7b climate.

More information about growing Amaryllis.

The North Carolina Christmas Tree Industry

Matt Jones – Horticulture Extension Agent, Chatham County 

Evergreen conifers have been associated with winter religious festivals from various cultures and traditions since ancient times. The first historical examples of modern Christmas trees arose in Protestant German-speaking regions of central Europe in the sixteenth century. By the nineteenth century, decorating Christmas trees became fashionable among the German nobility, including the German branches of the British Royal Family, and soon spread to the emerging middle classes of the Victorian Era. Christmas trees were popularized in the United States by German immigrants and by Americans following British trends and traditions.

Prior to the Second World War, most North Carolinians and others in the rural south favored eastern redcedar (Juniperus virginiana) and various pine species because of their availability in nearby woodlots. The flexible branches of these species also favored lighter tree ornaments that influenced traditional southern Christmas tree decoration. Increased urbanization and population movements after the War meant fewer people had access to their own trees, leading to increased demand for Balsam firs grown in Canada and New England. To help meet demand, North Carolina Cooperative Extension and the North Carolina Forest Service began working with farmers in western North Carolina to grow Christmas trees. The tree they chose was Fraser Fir (Abies fraseri), a native to the mountainous regions of the state. Fraser firs have strong branches (strong enough for even the heaviest and tackiest ornaments), a pleasant scent, and longer post-harvest needle retention than other species.

State agencies and the NC Christmas Tree Growers association have carefully nurtured expansion of the Christmas tree industry for the past 40 years, and North Carolina is now number two in total tree production, number one in revenue (generating over $100 million annually), and has a twenty percent share of the national market. The Christmas tree industry has been a boon to small farmers, who had previously struggled with making money on other crops in the post-War economy. Thanks to integrated pest management methods promoted by NC State University research, the industry has made tremendous strides in reducing insecticide and herbicide applications, as well as implementing soil and water conservation practices. State agencies and industry associations have also successfully promoted turning vegetative groundcover between trees into habitat for pollinators and wildlife.

Buying real trees offer other advantages besides supporting North Carolina Christmas tree farmers. Real Christmas trees are a natural product that can be recycled into wood chips (cut trees), and some species (e.g. eastern redcedar), when purchased alive in a pot, can be planted in the yard after Christmas. In contrast, artificial trees are made of plastic that eventually ends up in landfills.

When purchasing a cut tree, look for signs of premature needle loss, cracked trunks, string burn from transport, and sunscald. Once home, cut off another half-inch to an inch of the trunk and place in a secure container with plenty of water: newly cut trees typically need a gallon of water a day for the first few days, and several quarts a day thereafter. Well-watered trees are not a fire danger, but excessively dry trees close to sources of heat can be dangerous. The needles of a well-watered cut Fraser fir are pliable and elastic when folded, whereas the needles of dry trees will break. NC State University research studies have demonstrated that so-called ‘Christmas tree preservatives’ added to the water of cut trees do not prolong tree life, preserve freshness, or enhance needle retention, so save your money and avoid buying them.

For more information about selection and care of North Carolina grown Christmas Trees, visit the NC State University Christmas Tree Portal.