Pining for Alternatives to the Poinsettia? Start Digging Here.

By Adrian Higgins
Thursday, November 29, 2007

Does the world need yet another variety of poinsettia? How many shades of red are there, anyway?

Forgive the Scrooge moment; it's just that I'm scratching my head and wondering how we have allowed one plant to have such a defining role in the holiday season. Logic and reason have little traction here. The poinsettia's link to the sacred Christmas (as opposed to the secular consumerism of the holiday) is tenuous at best. Certainly no one in Bethlehem 2,007 years ago would have seen Euphorbia pulcherrima, a tropical shrub from the Americas, and definitely not one wrapped in foil.

The poinsettia became the holiday pot plant thanks to the marketing and growing skills of the Ecke family, four generations of nurserymen who succeeded in instilling the plant as a living icon of the season. Approximately 100 million poinsettias will find their way into the collective heart of the United States this Christmas, most of them varieties developed at the Paul Ecke Ranch in Encinitas, Calif. Hats off to the Eckes, I say. Theirs is one of the great success stories of American floriculture.

You will have sensed that I am not a huge fan of poinsettias, but I accept that many of the newer varieties reflect some brilliant hybridizing skills. Modern versions are more colorful, densely branched and tolerant of imperfect conditions than early varieties. However, the poinsettia is still fussy about its growing environment. I cringe when I see them kept in supermarkets in dark, dry corners, or stacked near the store entrance and subjected to cold drafts.

Are there alternatives? Yes, Dutch hybrid amaryllis come close to the poinsettia in their gaudiness. Red Lion is the ubiquitous scarlet variety, but I prefer some of the tamer ones, such as Picotee, white with a fine red edge, or an orange bloomer called Solomon. The butterfly amaryllis ( Hippeastrum papilio) is more refined, and with orchidlike striations on the petals. This species, though, is still hard to find, and expensive.

What we need is something cheap and cheerful. Fortunately, we have it in the Norfolk Island pine. For Holly Shimizu, who as executive director of the U.S. Botanic Garden is in daily contact with thousands of choice, rare plants, the common old Norfolk Island pine still works its charm. "You can put a red bow on it and some little white lights," she said. "It's Christmassy."

Its feathery foliage and graceful form are a plus, but what it really has going for it is its ease of care. It prefers a room with bright indirect light, temperatures on the cool side and some humidity, but it will take a lot of abuse and still look good.

Buy a healthy-looking plant and expect some needle drop if the tree is moved to lower light conditions, said Karl Gercens, conservatory gardener at Longwood Gardens in Kennett Square, Pa. Unlike a lot of holiday gift plants, the Norfolk Island pine is definitely a keeper. If it has a drawback, it is that in the wild it grows to 200 feet. Indoors, it hits the ceiling after 15 or 20 years and doesn't take to a trunk reduction.

Another keeper, if fussier, is the gardenia. It is a tender shrub that doesn't like hot, dry, overheated rooms. It also needs even moisture. If you let it dry out to the point that the leaves are wilting, it will probably drop the developing flower buds and you will miss out on that waxy white blossom and its heady scent. Just bringing the plant home from the nursery can risk bud drop, Gercens said. Keep it away from hot or cold blasts of air.

Assuming you keep a cool house with a bright room or two -- buy a sweater and rejoice in your shrinking carbon footprint -- you could also grow a cyclamen. I have a bright, west-facing dining room where my houseplants and tropicals spend the winter. By closing the doors and shutting off both heat vents, I can get the temperature down to the low 60s. I throw in a humidifier for good measure, and the plants love it.

The cyclamen has attractive flaglike blossoms, held aloft from the clustered leaves, in pinks, white and a deep red that fits the season. Temperatures above 65 degrees are likely to stop the plant's continuous flowering cycle. Also, the cyclamen should be watered from below, its pot placed in lukewarm water for a few minutes and then drained. If you water it from above, you run the risk of rotting the corm, the bulblike organ at the soil line.

When spring temperatures rise above 70 degrees, the leaves yellow and die as the plant goes into summer dormancy. This is mistaken for death, Gercens said. But if the corm is cured and stored, it can be replanted in October and started again. After a few seasons, the corm grows large and a single plant can be as much as 24 inches across, bearing hundreds of blooms, Gercens said. Surely this is a much more rewarding way to nurture a holiday plant year to year than the effort needed to get a poinsettia to live and re-bloom.

The Christmas cactus (a tropical succulent from Brazil) makes a great gift plant and is easy to get to reflower if you don't keep it in a warm room in the fall, when you should be trying to initiate bloom. Summer the plant in a shady spot outside, and leave it out in the fall but protected from early frosts. After a month of nighttime temperatures in the low 50s, bring it into a room with bright but indirect light and allow the top inch or so of soil to dry out between waterings.

If you live in a house with warm rooms, pick a moth orchid, the common name for the phalaenopsis. The plant will accept temperatures in the 70s and dislikes it cooler than the low 60s, and it will adjust to average or low light. Don't remove the flower spike after the blooms drop. If the orchid is happy and the spent flower spike is as thick as a pencil, a second flower spike should grow from the first, Gercens said. If a leaf begins to yellow, wait until it can be pulled off by hand rather than cutting it, he said. This will be healthier for the plant.

With all his enthusiasm for poinsettia alternatives, Gercens might be a little weary of the Scarlet Screamer. Or so I thought. "They're wonderful plants," he said, and getting better with new variegated varieties "not as grating as those five, 10 years ago."

He likes the Winter Rose series, in red, pink and an off-white, in which the flowering bracts are small, downturned at the tip and puckered. He also likes the Silverstar series, which also come in red, white or pink varieties, with variegated foliage.

He advises seeking out these and other more unusual varieties, healthy robust plants available at independent garden centers. He suggests putting one in a large container with a cyclamen and a miniature rose, hiding their ankles with moss: "Very high impact for a very short amount of time."

You'll find me in the Norfolk Island pine section.

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