Houseplants for the Holidays & Beyond

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WORDS & PHOTOS BY SUSAN TIMMONS

I take the gamble. Sometimes I win; sometimes I lose. But I never call it a real loss if the gamble is to plant amaryllis and paperwhite narcissus bulbs as potted houseplants and expect forced peak bloom precisely in time for a holiday party, Christmas Day, or a January Sunday display at church. This is the word of experience from years of trial and error with my Chancel Guild partner and friend, Nancy Brockman.

The good news is that these bulbs will inevitably give you the gorgeous display you seek. The not-so-good news is that they sometimes bloom earlier than expected per commercial instructions or take their merry ole time and decide to show off two weeks or more later. If you seek a surer calendar bet, you can buy these beauties locally at the last minute already (or almost) in full, glorious bloom for your special occasion. Plus, a good news bonus is that if you buy quality stock and give them proper care, the blooms will continue to bring joy for many weeks.

It’s fun to place a group of paperwhite bulbs in a pot of stones and water and watch nature progress from shoots to buds to full blooms. Their pungent aroma isn’t for everyone, but paperwhites, as well as amaryllis blooms, are indeed glorious! They don’t as obviously shout “Holiday Houseplant” as the more popular and always showy poinsettias with colorful bracts (not blooms, but modified leaves) that are seasonally for sale in grocery, big box, and other stores. Savvy marketers know poinsettias will bring in the bucks.

I’m not disparaging poinsettias, mind you. This species, indigenous to our neighboring Mexico, was named after Joel Roberts Poinsett, the first United States minister to Mexico, who introduced the plant to the U.S. in 1825. It has since become the bread-and-butter of colorful, reliable holiday houseplants.

I can’t recall a Christmas when I didn’t enjoy poinsettias enlivening my living room and other spots in my house that beg for holiday cheer. I’m still partial to poinsettias with old-fashioned red or white bracts but occasionally switch to pink, variegated, or other newer hybrids just for the sake of variety. And I do place the plastic store pots inside slightly larger drip-proof decorative pots (saved year-to-year just for this purpose) since I’m not partial to the look of their ubiquitous foil wrappers that sometimes spring a leak that could result in water damage to tables, rugs, and floors.

And I also like—and once had—an old-time holiday blooming houseplant favorite, Christmas cactus (which can also toy with the calendar and decide to bloom at Thanksgiving, Christmas, or Easter). With so many varieties of beautiful colorful hothouse plants (blooming and foliage) readily available year-round these days, any variety in colors to complement your holiday décor and preferences is a great choice for festive holidays and, with proper care, can give weeks, months, or even years of houseplant pleasure beyond the holidays.

Reblooming

Most blooming houseplants from nurseries, big box and grocery stores, as well as other sources, come with instructions for care that vary according to the plant. I’ve found that many, such as inexpensive poinsettias, are delightful in their extended showy season, but typically aren’t worth the trouble to save and attempt to achieve their original beauty in subsequent seasons. There are exceptions, of course, and I once saw a magnificent old indoor poinsettia plant in the window of a dry-cleaning shop in our climate zone that could hold its own with those grown along roadsides in Mexico.

The lovely amaryllis (native to the Western Cape region of South Africa) is the one holiday blooming houseplant that friends most frequently inquire about reblooming techniques. When I lived on the farm, I simply planted spent holiday potted amaryllis bulbs directly in the ground in an outside garden with a very protected south-facing microclimate, and they rebloomed naturally in springtime of the following year and thereafter.

However, to keep your bulbs as houseplants, cut the bloom stalks within an inch of the bulbs after the flowers have faded, place in sunlight, and continue to water and fertilize so the leaves continue to grow and new leaves form. In springtime, after the last frost, place potted bulbs outdoors in a protected place, acclimating them gradually to direct sun, and move them back indoors in the fall before first frost. If moving them outdoors isn’t an option, give them lots of sunlight and good drainage indoors.

Interestingly, these are essentially the same reblooming techniques I used for my potted orchid collection, which topped 70 at one point. (Warning: orchids can become addictive, as I wrote in the January/February 2016 issue of Lynchburg Living.) Moving orchids outside to my screened back porch during summer and bringing them back inside just before fall’s first frost gave them a wide daily temperature range that set bloom spikes. Then, they’d begin blooming in January (but usually not in time for Christmas), with blooms lasting for months or longer as an antidote to winter doldrums once holiday décor has been packed away. FYI—Don’t try planting orchids outside in your garden. They’ll be goners with the first frost.

If you choose not to attempt reblooming, leftover poinsettias and other lingering and increasingly leggy holiday bloomers can be clustered with other houseplants in a window or sunroom grouping that allows enjoyment of lingering blooms but camouflages gangly stems.

In addition to orchids, a whole host of other blooming houseplants can serve as great mood enhancers during gray winter months, and there are options to fit every color scheme and space opportunity or constraint. Just remember that they need light to bloom, so windows or good grow lights are necessary if you want long term blooming pleasure. They may also have humidity needs that create requirements a bit tougher to meet in our homes unless you’re willing to mist regularly, run a humidifier, or place particularly needy plants near the kitchen sink or shower.

Why Bring Plants Indoors?

Indoor flowering plants are traced back thousands of years. History records flowerpots and other evidence of houseplants back to the Minoans on the island of Crete, Egyptians, and Indians. Romans even devised heated precursors to modern greenhouses to grow plants out of season or with different climate needs for indoor pleasures. Thus, humans became hooked on plants that required indoor care to thrive.

The Victorian 19th century solidified the passion for humans to enjoy plants from all parts of the world, made possible by glass houses, most splendidly exemplified by those at Kew Gardens in London. Thanks to these innovations, worldwide plant exchange offered the enticement of gorgeous exotic plants to those who had never known such gifts of nature existed. And, of course, being who and what we are, over time humans wanted these enticing plants in their own homes.

Houseplants became both status symbols and vehicles to satisfy our need for nature, gardening, and aesthetic beauty when we do not have available outdoor land, the climate to support plants we wish to grow, or the time, energy, or other resources for gardening. A collection of African violets (what lover of these sweeties can have just one?) or a single short-term cyclamen on a coffee table when company comes can bring joy in the form of beauty, ambiance, and serenity to our homes and lives.

They’re also great design and decorator tools for creating focal points in a room, filling gaps in décor, and sectioning or screening spaces. Plants are typically mobile and versatile in that you can move them away from window light for days or even weeks without harm for a special party or other purpose. Tip: Unless you have strong muscled help to do the heavy lifting, wheeled bases for large and/or heavy plants are necessary for those you wish to move around.

Plants in our indoor environments contribute to good health through the exchange of carbon dioxide exhaled from humans and oxygen emitted from plants as a waste product of photosynthesis, enhancing the oxygen availability for us humans. Studies have shown that plants in our indoor spaces also have a positive effect on our psychological well-being.

Flowers Aren’t the Whole Story

While flashy flowering plants grab our eye, foliage houseplants can give them a run for their money. They can climb, cascade, sport many leaf shapes and textures in endless shades of green and other sunlight-enhanced colors; and they can be combined in interesting groupings. Many houseplant aficionados start off with simple, tough, fairly foolproof houseplants like ficus tree, philodendron, peace lily, schefflera, spider or snake plant, and others that, within reason, tolerate a great deal of neglect or over-solicitude. Our success with these “work horse houseplants” emboldens us to try something a bit more challenging or requiring more nuanced care.

Many decades ago, my success with both a ficus tree and schefflera astounded me! I followed advice about medium light and not overwatering, and they steadily grew strong and healthy—and outgrew my home before I learned pruning techniques to keep them in check. So, I gifted them to my spacious, high-ceilinged office, where they continued to thrive.

I’ve certainly had my houseplant failures, such as a Norfolk Island pine that seemed to pine away despite my best efforts. Yet long-term successes that still amaze me include a huge decades-old jade plant and a ming aurelia that’s been under my care for more than 40 years. It’s now at least 7 feet tall with gnarly and twisted woody stems holding clumps of lacy leaves that give it the demeaner of an ancient bonsai. And it actually is a bonsai of sorts since it’s totally root bound, having never been re-potted in all this time. It’s a classic example of benign neglect working better than excessive attention, especially over-watering; and it looks way cool and artsy—like something out of a Chinese painting. (Hope I didn’t just jinx it!)

Care and Nurture

Now that I’ve confessed that I don’t always follow the rules, I’ll share a bit about the “rules” on potting houseplants. First, the pot must fit the size of the plant and its root ball with space to grow and support the plant. And it must drain unless you have such close communion with your plant that you’re able to monitor the moisture and let it dry out sufficiently between watering so roots don’t rot. My rule of thumb is to let houseplants dry out until they start to look slightly stressed before watering again. Knowing that magic time is a matter of observation and practice. To make room for normal growth patterns, the plants should be repotted when needed. Again, knowing when is learned by trial and error.

The potting medium should be suited to the plant. Many do well in commercial potting soil, while others, such as succulents need a sandier or more porous medium to facilitate drainage. And orchid roots need bark nuggets or another medium that offers air spaces to avoid over-saturation and root rot, which will bring on sure death of the plant.

Many foliage houseplants, such as philodendron and peace lily, will tolerate low light if window space is not available. Just remember if you use artificial light that they do need alternating times of light and darkness, as they would find in nature.

With knowledge and sensitivity to your houseplants, you too can be a “Plant Whisperer” and develop an innate sense of whether to water more or less. Move them closer to or farther from light. Repot or not.

One of the joys of houseplants is propagating and sharing them. Most of my houseplants have come as gifts from family and friends through division, slips, or other means of propagation. I’ve bought very few. Slips from one prolific lipstick plant are now vibrant houseplants for an entire group of my friends. My friend Robert Roberts told me a touching story about his grown daughter recently giving him a spider plant that she propagated from his long-deceased mother’s original plant. Most of my friends have stories of plants handed down from generation to generation.

I gave my son Reid a few orchids and cuttings from succulents that hadn’t rebloomed for me in the past couple of years. And they are now blooming for him in his house on the Chesapeake Bay! I’m always thrilled at seeing photos of his happy plants, and as my houseplant success diminishes, his grows. It makes my heart sing. You too can grow foliage plants that become interesting members of your family with lifespans that could even exceed your own.

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