December is the month to think “Poinsettia.” Eighty-five percent of potted holiday plants sold are poinsettias. These Mexican native plants have a botanical name meaning “very beautiful” … certainly descriptive.

What is commonly referred to as a flower is actually a set of colorful modified leaves (bracts) which surround the small berry-like clusters of yellow flowers. When picking a plant, check that there is little or no yellow pollen on the flower clusters. Plants that shed pollen will soon drop their vibrant bracts.

Poinsettias should be wrapped properly for the trip home. Temperatures below 50 degrees for even a few minutes can cause damage.

When you get your flowering plant home, place it where it will receive indirect light for six hours daily. It is important to keep it out of drafts. A temperature of 60 to 70 degrees is ideal during daytime; 55 degrees at night. Higher temperatures will shorten the plant’s life. Check soil daily and water only when it feels dry. Do not fertilize poinsettias when they are in bloom.

For bloom next Christmas, keep your poinsettia completely dark from 5 p.m. until 8 a.m., beginning at the end of September until Dec. 15. An easy way to do this is to place a cardboard box over the plant each evening. Even street lights can prevent flowering. During daytime, give it sunlight.

Even with the many choices of hybridized colors, red poinsettias are still the choice of more than 75 percent of Americans, followed by white and then pink. Whether you enjoy the challenge of encouraging your plant to rebloom, or decide to purchase a fresh poinsettia each year, take pleasure in this cheerful seasonal prize.

Blooming profusely from September to March, another popular flower is the Mediterranean native Cyclamen. This small plant has heart-shaped, marbled green leaves and delicately scented pastel flowers in colors from red to rosy pink to lavender or pure white. The petite blooms are held upright above the compact, 8-inch tall plant, resembling colorful butterflies in flight.

Cyclamen is a relatively easy plant to maintain when watered carefully and kept on a bright, north-facing windowsill. Temperatures below 68 degrees are preferred.

When the soil feels dry, water near the perimeter of the container, being careful to keep the tuber dry. Any surplus water not absorbed within 15 minutes should be poured off. Add one-half strength liquid plant food to the water once weekly during the growing period.

Among recommended Cyclamen varieties are: “Scentsation” with red-to-pink strongly scented flowers; “Victoria” which has ruffled white blooms with red trim; and any of the “Sierra” series with their large 2- to 3-inch colorful blossoms.

Another favorite for the holidays is commonly called Christmas Cactus. Its cascading stems make it a favorite for hanging baskets and plant stands. Hybridizing has created a wide variety of brightly colored blossoms including red, orange, pink, purple and cream. Flattened dark green stems light up with the 3-inch tubular flowers.

Christmas Cactus blooms best when kept in 50 to 60 percent humidity and somewhat pot-bound. It is also important to keep this plant out of drafts and away from heat sources or a door to the outside.

Originating in Holland, Amaryllis bulbs can be grown in containers … or guess what, simply encased in decorated wax enclosures to use as a unique holiday centerpiece. Available in many patterns and color combinations, artistic Amaryllis grow quickly from their wax coating, and as if by magic bloom in 4 to 6 weeks.

These can primarily be purchased over the internet, by mail order, or from some florists.

Holiday plants have long been show-stoppers, whether for gift giving or starting your own distinctive collection. Make any holiday setting extra elegant by selecting your favorite colorful, sweet scented, strikingly beautiful plant companions. The choices keep getting better!

Mary Kidnocker is a University of Arizona Master Gardener who lives in the Green Valley area.

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