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Now'sthe Time to Give Them "TheTreatment"
Question.Hi, Mike: I'm a long time fan—I love your show—and I'm looking foryour advice on how to get an old poinsettia to turn red again for theholidays. I know you've discussed this in pervious years. Would youplease remind me when to put it in the dark and whatever else I have todo? I'm sorry that we who are losing our memories have to torture youwith repetitive questions all the time! Thanks,
--Amy Laub;Visiting Angels Living AssistanceServices; PA
Answer.No trouble at all, Amy—now what was that question again?
Any way, don't apologize—this is thePERFECT time to discuss what needsto be done to bring all three holiday plants—Christmas cactus,amaryllis and poinsettias—into bloom for the season. The basic adviceis pretty much the same for all three; they need a period oftime—beginning right about now—where they either get a dark treatment,a cold treatment, or both. The key is to act NOW. The big reasonpeople's holiday plants don't bloom on time is that they aren'tthinking about it when they have to, which is three months inadvance—but YOU will be! Here's the specifics:
POINSETTIAS: Despite their wintertimepopularity, these tropicalbeauties hail from Mexico, and can't take any kind of a chill. Don'teven think about leaving a poinsettia outside in cold weather! Now, if you have plants still alive from last year, start providingthem with total darkness for 14 hours every night. And I mean TOTAL! Nonightlights, streetlights—nothin'! Put the plants in a closet or undera box around 6pm and bring them back into the light at 8am the nextmorning. During their period of darkness, they must be kept at atemperature between 60 and 70 degrees (F., of course). During the day,they should receive six to eight hours of BRIGHT sunlight and enjoytemperatures in the mid-70s. Feed and water as you would any activelygrowing houseplant.
After about 8 weeks of this nonsense,you should see that distinctivered color emerging on the top leaves (unless, of course, you have oneof those new yellow, pink or white plants). And yes—those are leaves;the flowers are the little yellow things in the center. Continuecovering the plant at night until the colors are nice and deep—thenjust enjoy!
To keep it going for NEXT year, prunethe plant back to around eightinches in early Spring when the colors start to fade, put it in a sunnywindow, feed it lightly, and then put it outside around June. Feed andwater it over summer, bring in back inside at the beginning ofSeptember, repot it and start all over again!
CHRISTMAS CACTUS: Three similar"holiday cacti" are called by thisname, but only one is the real thing. If, like most people, thebranches on your so-called Christmas cactus have pointy teeth, youactually have a Thanksgiving cactus, which prefers to bloom in Novemberunless you intercede. The branches of the much rarer Christmas cactushave scalloped edges—no 'teeth'—and like to bloom from December thruMarch. The Easter cactus, which typically blooms in Spring but oftenflowers periodically throughout the year, has 'teeth' that are muchmore rounded than the Thanksgiving type.
No matter which type you have, NOW'sthe time to 'tell it' to produceits holiday flowers. You have two choices: Dark treatment or coldtreatment. Whichever you choose, water your cactus lightly now, don'twater at all in October, and resume light watering in November. Don'tfeed until you see new growth appear next Spring.
DARK: As with poinsettias, keep theplant in total darkness from around6 in the evening to 8am the next morning; during the day, the plantshould receive bright, normal light. After about six weeks, it shouldhave nice big fat flower buds. Stop the darkness thing, keep it inbright light during the day with nighttime temps in the mid-sixties,and those buds should open in another six weeks or so, depending on thelight, room temperature and whether you were nice to chipmunks thisyear.
COLD: Keep your cactus in a very cool place—55 degrees is ideal—for thenext six weeks; this gets those big fat buds to form no matter how muchlight it gets. Just don't let the temp drop below 50 degrees or thosebuds could be damaged.
Either way: If those flowers aremoving along too fast for your timing,move the plant to a spot that's a little cooler (around 60 degrees). Ifthe big buds don't seem to want to open, make it a little warmer andgive it more light. Prune the plant back a bit after the flowers fade;then root those prunings and make more cacti!
AMARYLLIS: Yes, you CAN get that giant bulb fromlast Christmas tobloom again—if you allowed the green leaves to linger on the plantafter its last flowering; they're what fuels the growth of the next setof blooms. (If you cut them off right after the flowers faded lastyear, you might as well toss that bulb.)
If you DID 'leave the leaves', stopwatering right now and allow thebulb to dry out for a month or so. Then take it out of its pot, andgently remove any dead leaves and brown 'scaley' stuff on the outside.Nice looking roots indicate a happy, healthy bulb. Repot it, makingsure the neck extends well above the soil line. Then place the pottedbulb in a cool, dry, sunny spot, water it VERY well, and then watervery lightly; new shoots should appear in about a month. When they do,give it a little feeding and begin watering more often, but don'toverwater. Flowers should appear in another five to eight weeks,depending on the room temperature. Plant brand new bulbs in earlyNovember for your best shot at X-Mas bloom.
(Note: No twosources agree on EXACTLY how to dothis. Here's the latest, VERY detailed take from our good friends atthe Netherlands Bulb Flower Information Center: x. )
To get rebloom next year, cut theflower stalk off after the bloomshave faded, but don't dare touch those green leaves! Treat it like ahouseplant over winter—no food and little water. Once the days startgetting longer, water it regularly and feed it monthly with a gentleorganic fertilizer. In early September, stop feeding and cut way backon the water. Stop watering by October 1st and do it all over again.
You Bet Your Garden ©2004 Mike McGrath