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Published: 12/10/2008

How to care for blooming holiday gifts

Some gifts come with a ready-made bow - it's called a blossom! Winter bloomers such as poinsettia and amaryllis make great holiday gifts. Other plants, including the Christmas cactus, can last all year long. The trick is keeping them alive.

To get poinsettias to bloom again, you need to understand their life cycle. Those big red blossoms aren't blossoms at all. They are actually colored leaves called bracts. The flowers on a poinsettia are the tiny buttons in the center of the plant. The green stems are called petioles.

Many people think the poinsettia is poisonous, but research at Ohio State University says no. Toxicity tests done in 1971 found that rats showed no ill effects when they were fed unusually large amounts of the plants. But I don't think I would add it to the family's diet - according to the Mayo Clinic's Web site, ingesting the plant can make you sick.

They like to be in a warm room between 60 and 70 degrees, and out of any drafts. They can also become a bit chilly if their leaves touch a cold window. Poinsettias should be kept evenly moist, not too wet and not too dry. Your poinsettia will start to drop its leaves if it gets too much of a good thing.

By February, the flower in the center of the plant will start to grow up and out. The plant is getting ready to be cut back. Get your scissors out in March. You can cut the stems down to six inches long. More leaves will start to sprout right where it was pruned. Keep two to three leaves on each stem so the plant can collect light and feed itself. Leave it in a sunny window in your house and fertilize it every two weeks.

In the summer, put your poinsettia plant in a bigger pot if it seems crowded and set it outside. One trick is to sink it down in a soft spot in your garden, pot and all. If the pot has holes in the bottom, the plant will take up moisture from below and it will also get nature's rain and sun for a few months.

The beautiful horn-shaped blossoms of the amaryllis bulb are a welcome and cheerful gift for anyone. They can brighten up any room, even in low-light situations. They come in many colors, from bright red to white and many shades in between. The simple kits available at many stores make it easy to add water and watch the plant start to bloom.

Keep the bulb lightly moist, but not too wet, while it is actively growing.

Usually, each bulb will sprout two flowers. And once they start to wilt away, you can cut them off. Keep the stalks fed for a few months and the bulb will continue to grow strong.

You can get it to bloom again next winter. Just let it dry out in the summer so it will go dormant. Set it in a dark, dry place until mid-October. Put it in fresh potting soil and start watering it again about six to eight weeks before you want it to bloom. Move it into a sunny window once you see it start to bloom and begin giving it a bit of fertilizer.

One of my favorite Christmas bloomers is the Schlumbergera hybrid start I got from a barber in Bedford Township a few years ago. His plant is decades old. I am carrying on his family tradition with a Christmas cactus of my own now.

The flat legs of cactus stems are pretty all year long. But to get them to bloom in the winter, you have to trick the plant a little. Keep it in bright sun during the hot summer months. Once evening temperatures cool off into the 40-degree range, it is time to bring it inside. Let the cactus dry out and keep it in a room that gets dark after the sun goes down. This will tell the plant that it is time to go dormant. You will see the ends of the stem start to swell. That's where the blooms sprout. Put the Christmas cactus in a sunny window away from any drafts or high heat. Sit back and drink some eggnog, sing Christmas carols, and take in the beauty of gifts from nature.

Contact Kelly Heidbreder at: kheidbreder@theblade.com



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