How not to kill your Christmas Houseplants
Houseplants make great presents but to ensure that a plant, like a puppy, is not just for Christmas here are a few key tips on buying and looking after plants for yourself or as gifts.
The first question is on what and where to buy. Like buying any plant at any time of year, you want a healthy plant with a good root system that reaches the edges of the pot without being pot bound. So do not be afraid to tip the pot slightly or gently lift the plant a little so that you can see if the roots are well established. (Restore the plant to its original state afterwards.) Picking up the pot also allows you to assess whether the plant has been watered – a good indicator that is has been looked after in the shop. How? Simply because the plastic pot, plant and dry compost weigh very little and all the weight you feel is from any water: a 1 litre pot of water would weigh a kilogram. You want a plant where the compost is holding water but not waterlogged and dripping out of the bottom. A 10% shortage of water, below the optimal level for plant, can cause photosynthesis to stop. At this point the leaves will not be drooping so the plant might appear fine.
All sorts of outlets offer plants for Christmas, some at very attractive prices and it is not always the case that a more expensive plant is automatically better than a cheaper one. But changes of temperature can trigger stress and often leaf drop in a plant and it may well have had many changes since leaving its controlled growing conditions: grown in a glasshouse, carried in a cold lorry or container and stood outside a shop before being taken into your warm house (or sitting inside a hot shopping centre). You might have quite a stressed and bare plant a couple of days later. This is less likely if you buy from an established plant shop or nursery and if your plant has been locally grown.
The next challenge is looking after a plant for 2 or 3 weeks before Christmas and especially one intended as a gift – you want it to be perfect for Christmas Day. Like outdoor plants, different houseplants thrive in different conditions so take a moment to check the label. Not all benefit from direct sunlight and very few enjoy the heat of a radiator. Place the plastic pot (which must have holes in the bottom) into a pot cover or deep-ish saucer and water carefully, avoiding the lower leaves. After an hour or so tip out any excess water to avoid the proverbial soggy bottom. If you have bought a flowering plant and want to delay or maintain flowering until the big day, then placing it in a cooler spot will slow down the plants internal processes, buds will open and flowers will age more slowly. But there are limits so in this case you are best to choose a specimen that is in bud rather than already covered with blooms.
Poinsettias, like those in the photograph, are probably still the most well known Christmas houseplant. They are now offered with the coloured bracts in shades of white and pink as well as the original red. All have the same white sap that can be irritative so handle with care.
Christmas Cactus will last for many years and are very tolerant of neglect in the summer months, as long as you do actually water them occasionally! Although in the cactus family these plants need a shadier spot and more humidity than most mainstream desert cacti. They naturally flower between November and January so are reliably in bloom over Christmas.
Moth Orchids have long been a popular indoor flower because of their long flowering period and a tolerance for central heating, Orchid care is a little more specialised than most other houseplants so definitely worth some research in advance.
Happy Gardening from Alison