Christmas is coming, and that brings a number of challenges to people looking after indoor plants - whether they are professional interior landscapers or keen home gardeners.
Poinsettias (Euphorbia pulcherrima) are among the most commonly used seasonal plants. You will often find them forming part of Christmas seasonal displays and for sale at every garden centre and supermarket from mid-November onwards. As well as the traditional bright red varieties, new types in deep red (almost maroon), cream, pink and white are also available. Unfortunately, poinsettias have a reputation as being short-lived and difficult to maintain, even over the relatively short period that they are in our homes or offices.
Here are 10 tips that we can share that will help them to look good for longer.
1. Poinsettias are NOT deadly toxic to people, children or animals (although the sap can be irritating)
2. Poinsettias MUST BE unwrapped from their sleeves as soon as you get them indoors
3. Keep warm. Poinsettias originate from the warm climate of Mexico and central America, and don't like sitting in cold vehicles, cold buildings or watered with cold water. It substantially reduces their life span. Poinsettias will do better in warmer, draught free locations. NEVER place them near cold draughts or outside doorways
4. Red poinsettias often look poor under fluorescent lighting. Incandescent or halogen lighting makes them look their best
5. White or pink poinsettias will look better for longer display periods (over three weeks). Red ones tend to fade in colour if in low light for over three weeks
6. Many of today's modern poinsettias were bred to have flexible bracts (the coloured leaves around the rather insignificant flowers); thus they tend to weep a little. This is natural. On some, the foliage has the same appearance
7. Whilst they can consume a lot of water, poinsettias should never be allowed to stand in water
8. Whilst wilted poinsettias may have their life span reduced, soaking the root ball with warm water will often cause severely wilted poinsettias to revive. Revival should occur within one hour, so don't chuck out your plants until you have tried this
9. Poinsettia quality varies WIDELY from grower to grower, and year to year. You often get what you pay for
10. ... and finally, the answer is no, white poinsettias don't turn pink then finally "ripen" to red.
What about alternatives to poinsettias?
If poinsettias don't get your horticultural juices flowing, there are some good alternative seasonal plants to consider. Here are a couple to think about.
One plant that you might consider is the Hippeastrum, often erroneously called Amaryllis (which is a related species, but not the one you'll commonly find). It is a bulbous plant (grown from a large, onion-shaped bulb) that is often in flower at this time of year. Available in a wide variety of colours and flower forms, this impressive and spectacular plant is easy to care for.
The word cactus conjures up images of the spiky, desert plants seen in cowboy films. However, the cactus family is quite diverse, and one member of this group is the Christmas cactus - species and hybrids in the Schlumbergera genus. These plants, originally from the cloud forests of Brazil (where they grow in tree tops at altitudes between 1,000 and 1,700 metres above sea level) are also very easy to look after. They can be induced to produce flower buds by keeping them relatively cool (10°C - 15°C / 50°F - 60°F) for six to eight weeks. Some examples of this species are known to be over 100 years old and they can get very big indeed. A related species, Rhipsalis gaertneri, is known as the Easter Cactus and usually flowers during the spring in the Northern Hemisphere.
Tips for indoor plants in the winter
If your offices are shutting down over Christmas, or if you are going away on holiday, spare a thought for your indoor plants.
Most indoor plants are a lot more robust than you think, and can manage quite well for a week or two without much thought, but there are some things you can do to ensure that you won't come back to a collection of dead sticks and fallen leaves.
1. If the lights are going to be turned off, turn down the temperature a little as well, otherwise the balance light temperature and water will be lost and your plants might suffer
2. But don't turn the thermostat too low - some succulents really can't cope with temperatures below about 10c - Crassulas (money plants) can collapse and fall apart (although they can re-grow, very slowly) and Sansevieria (Mother-in-law's tongue) will go mushy and smelly. Orchids and poinsettias will also be unhappy if they get chilled
3. Don't be tempted to over-water the plants "just to be on the safe side". If it is cool, or darker than usual, the plants can't make use of the excess, and you might damage the roots and the soil structure. If you have an irrigation system installed (office plants usually do), then your plants will manage perfectly well for two or three weeks without worry
4. Baubles, lights, silly string and fake snow are best reserved for Christmas trees. As well as looking a little undignified on your nice specimen tropical plant, you could end up damaging the foliage
5. Having said that, why not decorate the soil surface with a seasonal top dressing - pine cones or even coloured baubles might look pretty and festive without risking any damage to the plants.