At this time of year, gardeners turn their attention indoors.

You may have to rake, and if you haven’t planted your flowering bulbs and garlic yet, you could still do so. But even with the accelerating pace of climate change, the approaching hard freeze and the potential snow will soon put a stop to outdoor gardening activities.

Right now, in the early part of the indoor season, holiday plants get much of our attention. They show up at supermarkets, garden centers, department stores and online.

Though often called Christmas cacti, the Schlumbergera Truncata actually blossoms around Thanksgiving. Shutterstock/ Bozhena Melnyk

One of the most popular and easiest to grow is the Christmas cactus, which, many people complain, often comes into blossom at Thanksgiving and has stopped blooming by the time Christmas arrives. Here is a good example of why the Latin, or botanical, names matter. In fact, what we call Christmas cacti are actually two similar plants in the family Schlumbergera. Both are native to the mountains of Brazil, and although their common name includes “cactus,” they are more closely related to orchids. In the forest, they grow in the branches of trees rather than in the soil.

Those that blossom around Thanksgiving time are Schlumbergera truncata. Identify them by the sharp points at the end of their leaves, which resemble flattened lobster claws. Schlumbergera bridgesti bloom closer to Christmas, and their leaves are scalloped or teardrop-shaped.

Because the colors of Christmas are typically red and green, the plants with red blossoms are the most popular. But my wife, Nancy, and I have a specimen with white blossoms, and two with yellow blossoms. These plants with specialty colors seem to take forever to reach a decent size, but already they get a few blossoms each year.

Christmas cacti are easy to grow. Give them full sun. Avoid soggy soil, watering them only when the top of the soil is dry – every three weeks will do. In the summer, take them outside to a shady part of your garden and ignore them until fall. You can get more plants by cutting off a piece that contains three of the plant segments. Let the piece dry out for about a day, and then simply replant it.

Poinsettias are another popular plant at this time of year, but for most people, they are a decoration as much as a house plant. People buy them about now, bring them home, water them a few times and throw them away when they put their holiday decorations away around New Year’s Day. It is possible to get the plants to reproduce their red bracts a second season, but it involves giving them light in the day but none at night for many weeks, and it is not worth the effort for us, as they are cheap to buy in almost any size or color.

Poinsettia is the classic Christmas plant. Rich Abrahamson/Morning Sentinel

Poinsettias are from Mexico. In the United States, they are named after Joel Poinsett, Andrew Jackson’s ambassador to Mexico, who imported them here. The Aztecs called them Cuitlaxochitl, and the Mexicans call them Flores de Noche Buena, which is Spanish for “Flower of the Holy Night.” The botanical name is Euphorbia pulcherrima.

With its elegant long stem and bright red flowers, Amaryllis is another favorite for the holidays. It is a bulb plant, so if you want it for this holiday season, you’ll need to go to a nursery and buy it already in bloom.

If you’re more timely next year, here’s how you’d do it: Select a narrow container and place the bulb near the top, covering it by two thirds with potting soil. Place it in a sunny window and keep it watered. Fertilize it occasionally with a liquid houseplant fertilizer. To get amaryllis to blossom a second year, keep the plant in a sunny window, and continue to water and fertilize it until all chance of frost is past. Now place it in a shady location outside. Once it has acclimated to being outside, move it to full sun. Supposedly, it is easy to get the amaryllis to rebloom, but in our family, Nancy gives the bulb to her sister in Tampa, Florida, who uses them for garden plants.

Many other plants, Bromeliads, cyclamen and orchids among them, are considered holiday plants because they can bloom inside in November and December. Read the care labels that come with the plants you’re thinking of buying and buy the plant that will like the spot where you’re putting it in your home. Some need lots of sun, some can get by with little sun, and with something like poinsettia, you can put it almost anywhere and it will live until New Year’s Day, as long as you water it now and then. Buy what you like and enjoy the holiday season.

Tom Atwell is a freelance writer gardening in Cape Elizabeth. He can be contacted at: [email protected]


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