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You got that plant for Christmas. Now what?

Posted: Friday, December 26, 2003

NEW MARKET, Va. (AP) So there you are, waving a fond farewell from the front door as your friend departs after delivering a poinsettia, a leaf cutting from her grandmother's favorite Christmas cactus or an amaryllis bulb.

EDITOR'S NOTE Dean Fosdick retired in May 2001 after 23 years with The Associated Press, 15 of those as Alaska bureau chief. He has covered the Exxon Valdez oil spill, volcanoes, galloping glaciers and harvesting Alaska-grown 100-pound-plus cabbages. He can be reached at: deanfosdick(at)netscape.net

Thoughtful gifts and traditional holiday plants all. But now what?

Since so many holiday plants have tropical origins, a good first step is to bring it in from the cold and then shield it from drafts or temperature extremes, like those radiating from wood stoves or frosty windowpanes.

They've been stressed enough already.

This also is a good time to decide if you'll be keeping the gift plant to bloom again another year or if you'll be tossing it with the mangled Christmas wrap once the celebrating is over.

''Some plants make better gifts than others,'' says Carolyn Wilson, a master gardener from Mount Jackson, Va., who specializes in houseplants.

''Poinsettias are cheap and easy and readily available, so they wouldn't be my first choice. That would be an amaryllis,'' Wilson says. ''They can bloom within six weeks. Most are sold in boxes and already in potting soil.

''Unlike poinsettias, they can go on for years and years and years.''

Wilson believes there is strength in numbers when nurturing plants indoors.

''No plant likes to be an orphan,'' she says. ''They do best in large groupings, increasing the humidity around them naturally.''

But be prepared to shift your tender new plants around. Holiday plants need bright natural light, but not necessarily direct sunlight, she says.

Study the Christmas plants featured in decorating magazines, Wilson says.

''They look great when placed in entries, on dining room tables or lining mantles. But that can give people the wrong impression because those often aren't the best locations. They only get a limited amount of room light.

''It's important to know how much light each plant needs,'' she says. ''They shouldn't get any direct sun when they're in full bloom. And try keeping your holiday plants on the cool side of the neutral range say around 60 to 65 degrees.

''I generally rotate poinsettias in and out of my sun room every few days.''

Keep your holiday plants damp, but not overly so. That's easier to control if you use loose, well-drained soil.

Most Christmas plants should be allowed to go dormant if you want them to bloom again.

Rest Christmas cactus in a cool site for a month or so. Monitor the temperature and what horticulturists call ''photoperiod control.''

Energize the cactus by exposing it to bright light. Add water and an all-purpose plant fertilizer. Gradually reduce the amount of light the cactus gets each day beginning a month or two before the desired budding period. That mimics the darkening days of autumn and prompts blossoms to reappear.

If you're tending amaryllis bulbs, cut the flowers after they fade, retaining the stems and fleshy leaves. That keeps your plants growing until they're placed in a cool, dry room in the waning days of summer. Ignore them for several months.

When you're ready to get the cycle going again, replace the top inch of soil with a fresh layer. Soak the plants, place them in bright locations and watch the blooms reappear.

To make poinsettias recycle, cut them back sometime in early spring. Repeat the manicure in July.

That stimulates the plants into making new blooms, says Mike King, marketing coordinator at the Paul Ecke (ECK'-ee) Ranch, in Encinitas, Calif., where an estimated 70 percent of the world's flowering poinsettias get their start.

Around Oct. 1, place the poinsettia plants in total darkness for all but six hours a day, when they should be exposed to direct sunlight. After a couple months of that light-dark cycle, they should bud again, just in time for your Thanksgiving gathering.

''Poinsettias are relatively inexpensive and easy to replace,'' King says. ''Of course, we're selling them, so we don't mind seeing people throw away their gift plants.

''But they don't require a lot of work if you want to bring them back again. Some, like those with variegated leaves, make good houseplants even when they aren't blooming.''

Recommended reading:

''Decking the Halls: The Folklore and Traditions of Christmas Plants'' by Linda Allen, Willow Creek Press. $12.95.

On the Net:

For more about carrying over pointsettias, try Maryland Cooperative Extension: http//www.hgic.umd.edu/pubs/online/hg30.pdf

University of Illinois Extension: http://www.urbanext/uiuc.edu/

Paul Ecke Ranch: http://www.ecke.com



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