Wild Things…
Holiday Plants 
By Karen Vizzi
     Many of our holiday customs are derived from very ancient forms of celebration. 
     Candles, Yule Logs, tree decorations …all have fascinating origins. Central to many of these old traditions was the celebration of the Winter Solstice, which falls on or around December 21st and is the shortest day of the year. In the old days, agriculture was the mainstay of life and people celebrated this turning point in the year when the days began to lengthen and they could look forward to the next growing season. Many of today’s gardeners still celebrate the Winter Solstice as a way to honor nature and as a complement to their religious celebrations.
     One of the most prevalent themes in the solstice celebration was to decorate the home with plants and greenery. We continue that tradition today with many popular holiday plants such as poinsettia and amaryllis. These are beautiful plants when first purchased and are most practically discarded when they fade. But many gardeners insist on testing their limits by keeping these beauties going throughout the year. I don’t have the patience but if you insist, here are a few tips:
     Poinsettia – fundamental to the cultivation of any plant is to understand how it grows in its natural environment. Poinsettias are tropical shrubs. The red “flowers” you see are not flowers, they are called bracts and are actually leaf structures. The true flowers are those little yellow knobs in the center. Once the bracts begin to fade and drop off, cut the plants way back, leaving just a leaf or two for photosynthesis. This is a good time to transplant it into fresh soil and move it to a slightly larger pot. Treat the plant as you would any other tropical houseplant…warmth, water and as much humidity as you can possibly provide. As soon as the weather warms up (when night temps stay above 55 degrees) move it outside into a sheltered area, not in direct sun. Be warned...if cared for properly, it will be enormous by the end of summer. I do not try to bring poinsettias back into flower because it’s way too much work. But I do use them as filler in the summer garden. They grow very large and are perfect for hiding a spot where something else failed to grow. But if you want to give it a try, here is what to do. 
     Bring the plant back inside at the end of summer and then provide a constant environment of 16 hours of TOTAL darkness (not even a tiny crack of light) and 8 hours of direct sun…every day for the next 12 –15 weeks. There can be no margin for error in this process, as even missing a few hours of this rigid schedule will interrupt the development of the red bracts. And even if you are successful in forcing the color back, the results may be washed out and be no comparison to a professionally grown, new plant. 
    Amaryllis – these plants grow from a large bulb and require similar treatment. However, the success rate for re-flowering is much higher. One quick tip for keeping the flower fresh now is to remove the tiny pollen-covered anthers before they start to fade. Use a tweezers or tiny scissors to clip them out and the flower will last longer. Once the flower has faded, cut the entire stalk down to the soil and keep the leaves growing as any other houseplant. The plant should be placed outside in summer, but amaryllis goes in full sun  so that the leaves can soak up the energy needed to develop a flower in the next cycle. The amaryllis may become unsightly as the leaves begin to flop over, so hide it behind a larger plant. At summer’s end, remove the whole plant from the pot, soil and all, and allow it to dry thoroughly. When the soil ball is completely dry and all the leaves have turned yellow, knock off as much of the soil as possible, clip off the dead leaves and place the bulb in a paper (not plastic) bag. Store the bag in the fridge (clearly marked!) for 10 –12 weeks. Around mid-November, remove the bulb and pot into fresh soil, taking care to leave ½ to 1/3 of the bulb ABOVE the soil line. Water to settle the soil but not again until you see the leaves begin to grow, which may take a few weeks. It is unlikely that you will have a flower for Christmas but you should see one by January or February…at a time when it may be the most welcome!
    BIRD BRAINERS: Consider “hull-less” seed mixes for bird feeding. They cost a little more, but there’s almost no mess and no unwanted seed sprouting in spring.
    BUTTERFLY BULLETS: Save all those little plastic film canisters from holiday photos!
In the spring we’ll talk about raising caterpillars to butterflies, and the canisters work perfectly to hold small sprigs of larval food for this fascinating project.
    LET IT BE: Don’t neglect the compost pile because it’s buried under snow. A few holes poked with a shovel handle will keep air circulating …a necessary part of the decomposition process.

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