How to Keep Your Gift Plants Happy After the Holidays

Yes, you can keep your poinsettia, amaryllis, cyclamen and other gift plants alive and blooming for holidays to come

Marianne Lipanovich
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Whether you receive them as a gift or choose them yourself, living plants have become an essential part of holiday decor. Where once only poinsettias ruled, you’ll now find many more options, from amaryllis and paperwhites to holiday cactus, cyclamen, moth orchids and hydrangeas. And, of course, you can even have a living Christmas tree. Here’s what to do to enjoy your favorite gift and holiday decor plants well beyond the season.

No flower defines the holiday season like the cheerful poinsettia (Euphorbia pulcherrima). It’s known for its bright red “leaves,” which are actually bracts — although, these days you can also find them in shades of white, cream and pink, as well as bicolor versions. It’s also long-lasting. Given the right care, it often will continue to bloom until the beginning of spring. If you’re willing to do a little more work, you can also get it to rebloom for several holiday seasons.

During the holiday season. Ideally, put your plant in a location that gets six to eight hours of bright, direct sunlight. It also can handle darker spots for a few weeks. Keep it out of drafts and cold spots, and place it where it won’t touch cold window glass. Daytime temperatures should be between 65 and 80 degrees Fahrenheit (18.3 to 26.7 degrees Celsius).

Water thoroughly when the soil is dry to an inch or so below the surface, then allow the container to drain completely. If you can, provide additional humidity; setting it on a pebble tray is ideal. Don’t fertilize while the plant is blooming.

One rule of thumb for any plant you have: Remove the wrapping around the container, cheerful though it may be, or at least poke holes in the bottom to allow water to drain. An exception would be materials that are naturally porous, such as burlap.

Post-holiday care. Give your plant the same care as you did during the holidays until the blooms fade, usually by March. Cut the plant back to about 8 inches high. Cut back on watering at this time as well, allowing the soil to dry completely between waterings. You can keep your plant indoors or move it outside in late spring into early summer once nighttime temperatures have warmed up above 50 degrees Fahrenheit (10 degrees Celsius). Put it in a bright spot that gets indirect light in the mornings and partial shade in the afternoons.

Resume regular watering when growth begins again, but be sure the container drains completely and the soil isn’t soggy. Feed with a balanced half-strength fertilizer every two weeks. Pinch back stems to keep the plant bushy. You also may want to repot the plant if it’s crowded. Bring your plant inside in fall, when nighttime temperatures fall to 50 degrees Fahrenheit (10 degrees Celsius) again.

The trick to their red color. Poinsettias are short-day plants and require an extended daily period of darkness over several weeks to trigger the change of leaf color from green to red. Place the plant in a location that’s completely dark at night for a minimum of 12 to 14 hours and with nighttime temperatures of 55 to 60 degrees Fahrenheit (12.8 to 15.6 degrees Celsius). If you don’t have such a location or can’t guarantee it will remain completely dark for that long, cover the plant with a box or black plastic bag, taking care that the covering does not touch the leaves. During the day, provide at least six hours of sunlight and temperatures of around 70 degrees Fahrenheit (21.1 degrees Celsius). Continue to feed and water regularly. Turn the plant every few days to encourage even growth.

After about 10 weeks to two months (or even longer), you’ll begin to see the color change. Bring the plant inside and continue watering, but discontinue feeding it until the blooming fades.

If you live in a climate where temperatures don’t drop below 50 degrees Fahrenheit (10 degrees Celsius), you can plant your poinsettia outdoors. Choose a spot with fertile, well-draining soil that gets bright, indirect morning sun and partial afternoon shade. Follow the same watering and feeding schedule as you would for plants in containers. If your plant does not get the darkness required for the color change on the bracts, they will remain green, but you will eventually have a good-sized perennial shrub that’s ideal for a tropical-style garden.

The stately amaryllis (Hippeastrum) is rapidly approaching the poinsettia in overall popularity as a holiday plant. They’re one of the few forced bulbs that can come back year after year, so you can enjoy your amaryllis this holiday season and for years to come.

Forcing it to bloom. Fill a pot with enough potting mix so the top third of the bulb will be exposed above the soil. Set the bulb in place, and then fill in around it with potting soil to hold it in place. You will probably also want to add a stake to support the flower stalk.

Place your bulb in a spot that gets bright, indirect light with daytime temperatures from 70 to 80 degrees Fahrenheit (21.1 and 26.7 degrees Celsius). Keep the soil moist but not soggy, watering when the top inch or two of the potting mix is dry. Be careful not to overwater, and let the container drain thoroughly.
Once the flower stalk appears, fertilize every two to three weeks with a half-strength water-soluble fertilizer. Turn the plant every two to four days to keep growth even.

During the holiday season. Keep your plant in a spot with bright, indirect light. Continue watering and fertilizing as you have been.

Post-holiday care. Cut off the stalk once the blooms fade, but continue to water regularly. Feed once a month with a balanced fertilizer. Place the plant outdoors in late spring or early summer. Start by putting it in shade or indirect sunlight, then gradually move it to a spot where it will receive full sun for at least six hours daily. Water and fertilize regularly as you have been. You can also place the plant directly in the garden, away from other plants, once the soil temperature reaches 70 degrees Fahrenheit, then dig it up and repot it in late summer.

Stop watering and fertilizing in late summer, around August to September, and let the soil dry out completely. Remove any dead leaves, and bring the plant into a cool, dimly lit spot before your first frost.

To force the plant to rebloom, keep it in this spot for a minimum of six weeks and up to 12 weeks. Cut off any leaves that turn yellow and wither. Then begin the forcing process as outlined above. Don’t repot at this time, but you can replace the top inch or so of soil.

These fragrant daffodils (Narcissus papyraceus) join amaryllis as a go-to bulb for the holiday season. They nestle nicely into even a 3- or 4-inch container, fit well into corners or tight spots and will bloom for about four weeks. You can also grow them in potting soil or in pebbles without pre-chilling the bulb.

Forcing them to bloom. You can always plant paperwhite bulbs in potting soil, but they do equally well when nestled into small round half-inch pebbles or stones. If you’re forcing your paperwhites in a container that doesn’t have drainage holes and are using potting soil, add about an inch of pebbles at the bottom of the container so the soil can drain.

Add more pebbles or potting soil until you form a base for the bulb or bulbs. Put the bulbs in place, pointed end up, and fill in with pebbles or potting soil to hold them in place. You’ll want the neck of the bulb to sit just above the soil or pebble line, so keep checking as you add the pebbles or soil.

Add water to just below the base of the bulbs. Place in a cool, dark location, around 50 degrees Fahrenheit (10 degrees Celsius) until roots form, usually in around two weeks. Add water as needed. Once the roots are formed, move into a warmer location inside your home and place in a bright, sunny spot until they bloom.

During the holiday season: Keep paperwhites out of direct sunlight once they are in full bloom. You can also tuck them into darker locations, such as a bathroom.

Post-season care. Keep the plants watered until you can plant them outside. They’re not guaranteed to rebloom, especially in warm-winter climates, but they might naturalize.

Holiday Cactus
Once known as Christmas cactuses, the term holiday cactus came about because you can have these plants blooming from Thanksgiving to Easter. The true Christmas cactus (Schlumbergera bridgesii) blooms in December, while the more commonly found Thanksgiving cactus (S. truncata) starts blooming earlier. The Easter cactus (Hatiora gaertneri) blooms in spring. Fortunately, they require the same general care. They also make excellent houseplants during the rest of the year and can even go outside during the summer in colder climates.

During the holiday season. Put it in a spot where it gets bright, indirect light — a west-facing window that doesn’t get direct sun is ideal. Water regularly, but allow the container to drain freely and the soil to dry a bit between waterings.

Post-holiday care. Continue the same care while the plant blooms. You can move the plant outdoors in spring and summer if you live in a cold-winter climate or at almost any time in the warmest winter regions. Provide bright indirect light through spring and summer and into fall. Fertilize weekly with about one-quarter-strength fertilizer from spring through summer while the plant is growing,

Holiday cactuses are also considered short-day plants that are said to need a certain amount of darkness to rebloom. I have found that I can give my holiday cactuses that are both inside my home and outdoors in my mild-winter climate the same care I give my other plants and still enjoy yearly blooms, but you may want to be more proactive.

In September into October, you can reduce the amount of water your plant receives and put it in a cool, dry spot, such as an unheated garage, where it will get at least 12 hours of darkness per day for about a month. If you can’t ensure 12 hours of darkness, place a box over it in the evenings to block the light. Be careful that the covering doesn’t touch the leaves or you may damage them. Once the buds set, increase the watering and bring the plant into a more brightly lit area.

These cactuses can also grow outside year-round in USDA Zone 9 and above (find your zone).

The florist’s cyclamen (Cyclamen persicum) is a sprightly addition to your holiday decor. These plants will bloom for around two months and are known for their dark green or green and silver heart-shaped leaves and star-like flowers in shades ranging from white to pink, salmon, red and purple.

They can be used to add winter color to dry, shady spots in the garden in warm-winter climates. The plants go dormant in the summer, whether they are in containers or in the ground. Miniature strains are also available.

During the holiday season. Cyclamen do well in any bright location in your house. They can handle cooler temperatures and are happiest with daytime temperatures in the 60s; they don’t do well in temperatures that get into the high 70s.

Let the soil dry out a bit between waterings, then water thoroughly and drain completely. Water from below to avoid water spots on the leaves. Feed with a half-strength liquid-soluble houseplant fertilizer once a month. Cut off spent flower stalks to encourage blooming.

Post-holiday care. Let the soil dry out once the plant has stopped blooming. In the late spring or summer, place it in a cool, completely dry shaded location outside. In fall, as the temperatures start to drop, bring them back indoors and resume watering and feeding.

Check out nurseries, garden centers and even grocery stores, and you’ll see more and more potted hydrangeas around the holiday season. White is the most common petal color, but keep an eye out for pink- and white-striped blooms, often under the name of Peppermint Twist or Candy Cane. To enjoy them in your garden for years to come, look for bigleaf hydrangea (Hydrangea macrophylla; zones 6 to 9) and oakleaf hydrangea (H. quercifolia; zones 5 to 9).

During the holiday season. Place your plant in a spot that gets morning sun and afternoon shade. Water regularly, keeping the soil moist. These plants wilt when they are thirsty. At the same time, be sure that the soil drains completely and the plant isn’t sitting in water. Fertilize weekly with a balanced quarter-strength liquid-soluble fertilizer.

Post-holiday care. Keep the plant indoors while it is blooming. Prune blooms back once they fade, leaving two pairs of shoots on each stem. You can also repot your hydrangea at this time. Continue to care for the plant inside or in a sheltered location until it is warm enough to plant outdoors.

You can bring hydrangeas back inside for winter, but they will revert to blooming at their normal flowering time, usually in spring to summer.

Moth Orchid
The popular moth orchid (Phalaenopsis spp.), which you will likely see at florists and grocery stores, not only makes a great, long-blooming gift or decorating accent, it’s also proof that orchids aren’t as delicate as many people think. With a little care, you can often get them to rebloom year after year.

During the holiday season. Place out of direct light while in bloom, but otherwise it is fine in any area in your home other than the darkest corners; you should move it into brighter light if it starts to fade. Ideal daytime temperatures are between 70 to 80 degrees Fahrenheit (21.1 to 26.7 degrees Celsius) and drop to around 60 degrees Fahrenheit (15.6 degrees Celsius) at night.

Water when the roots turn silver and the potting mix is just barely damp. Water in the mornings with room-temperature water so the plant will have time to absorb the water during the warmer daytime hours. Let the pot drain thoroughly.

Feed every three to four weeks with a quarter-strength liquid fertilizer while the plant is in bloom. Mist regularly or put the plant on a pebble tray to provide additional humidity.

Post-holiday care. Keep your orchid in place until the plant stops blooming, which can be several months. Then move it to an east- or north-facing window in a bright room. Continue your watering schedule and keep the room temperatures between 60 degrees Fahrenheit (15.6 degrees Celsius) at night and 80 degrees Fahrenheit (26.7 degrees Celsius) during the day, though it can handle occasional higher temperatures. Feed with a quarter-strength liquid fertilizer once a week.

To get a moth orchid to rebloom, cut back the flower spike after flowering finishes and wait for a second spike to form. You may need to move the plant to a slightly cooler spot at night, where the temperatures are about 50 degrees Fahrenheit (10 degrees Celsius) to encourage more flower production.

Living Christmas Trees
You can enjoy a living Christmas tree for several years. Choose a slow-growing or dwarf conifer that will do well in your climate zone. You can’t keep it indoors for long, but it can be brought in for brief periods for several years.

During the holiday season. Choose a healthy tree in a 5-gallon, 10-gallon or 15-gallon pot. Because nursery pots aren’t very festive, simply slip it into a larger, more decorative container. Set it in a bright, sunny, somewhat cool spot near a window and away from furnace vents and fireplaces. Water regularly, keeping the soil moist. One trick is to place ice cubes on top of the soil and let them melt.

Trees don’t do well inside for very long. Plan on leaving them inside for five to seven days, with a maximum of 10 days.

Post-holiday care. Move your tree outside to a sheltered location out of wind and sunlight for about a week. Water deeply, saturating the root ball, and lightly hose off or wipe off the needles to remove the dust. Once the tree has adjusted to outdoor temperatures, move it into a location in full sun and water regularly. Repot if it becomes root-bound.

Norfolk pine (Araucaria heterophylla), shown here, is a living tree option that can live indoors permanently. It is often sold as a miniature living Christmas tree at nurseries, home centers, florists and grocery stores but can reach up to 100 feet outdoors. Indoors it grows slowly but will eventually reach about 6 feet tall.

During the holiday season. Set your plant in a bright spot, preferably a south-facing window, out of drafts and where temperatures won’t fall below 35 degrees Fahrenheit (1.7 degrees Celsius). It loves humidity, so set it on a pebble tray. Water when the soil is dry to the touch and let the container drain completely.

Post-holiday care. Continue the same care throughout the rest of the year. Feed weekly with a balanced quarter-strength water-soluble fertilizer in spring and summer; don’t feed in fall and winter. Turn regularly for even growth. If the plant begins to get leggy, provide more light and cut back on fertilizer.