There’s certainly no need to gild the lily when it comes to these festive favourites, says Fiann Ó Nualláin.
There are two houseplants that have become synonymous with Christmas — the Christmas cactus and the poinsettia. They both make ideal festive-spirited decorations and both make great gift ideas. Let’s take a closer look.
The flash red flower of the Poinsettia (Euphorbia pulcherrima) is a no-brainer as a Christmas decoration and that’s even before the recent ghastly practice of gluing some gold glitter to the leaves.
Come on, enough of the gilded lilies and a little more gelding of the rampant cha-ching ponies. I’ve even seen it marked with a new name in recent years — the Christmas Eve flower.
Well, we are in the post-truth epoch so have your cake and you know what. I don’t like this “disposable plant” culture and glittered plants give an impression that it’s ok to throw them out with the leftovers in the new year.
But, just like puppies, they are not just for Christmas.
The poinsettia doesn’t need any extras, it is a handsome plant by itself. In fact, the botanical name “pulcherrima” means “most beautiful”. If you want to spin a seasonal tale then let this native Mexican plant with its stellar bracts herald the Star of Bethlehem and those orienteering Wise Men — just as the Franciscan monks trying to convert the indigenous Mexicans did way back when.
It is in the euphorbia family so it is not so much a petaled flower as a development of its bracts (modified leaves) into red and green showiness. Red and green echoing yuletide colours and its “flowering” over December and January did eventually make it a natural festive favourite in its native Mexico and now globally also.
It was once only available in deep red but over the past 10 years it has widened its presence with shades of especially bred pink, white, yellow and even some marbled and stippled varieties.
On a cautionary note it is of the family Euphorbiaceae — named after a famous Greek king who dabbled with the genus for poisonous purposes.
It is related to the garden euphorbias and the weedy spurges and all in the family contain within their foliage and stems, a sticky white latex-like sap that can be caustic to skin, toxic to the mouth and detrimental to the eyes.
One for the mantelpiece if you have small children.
Poinsettias can last many years as a houseplant. They will last longer than the goodwill if kept in a warm well-lit room.
They don’t do well in drafts or if placed near radiators. Water regularly but moderately. You can pinch out in spring or summer to promote renewed and bushier new growth.
Each year I am amazed at the variety in flower colour found in the Christmas cactus (Schlumbergera bridgesii, S. rhipsalidopsis and S. truncata) appearing on shelves this week, with new hybrids developing all the time.
Once upon a time it was only red-blooming schlumbergera that could be purchased in Irish garden centres but today there are white, pink, purple and even orange and yellow bloomers. And it’s not just garden centres that stock, nip into any supermarket worth its salt and you’ll find a “horti display” of these beauties.
The original red varieties are perhaps how it got its first festive connection, that and the fact that it blooms in time for Christmas.
Rare enough in the plant world. And no trickery here, as with those forced bulbs. No, the Christmas cactus is naturally winter flowering. And while cactus is in the name and kind of a clue to its watering requirements off season there are no sharp spines to content with.
I am a big fan and have been since childhood: It’s one of the first plants I bought with pocket money. Its exotic look captured my imagination — up until then sweets and comics did the job. My first houseplant seduction was so easy to keep, it survived well into my late teens in a macramé hanging device in my bedroom window.
It only suffered when I moved out and took it with me, and I learned a valuable lesson; Some things don’t like to be moved. Certainly, Christmas cacti will drop whole limbs of foliage if moved from one window to another.
My first choice of the bedroom was a good one, I didn’t know at the time but schlumbergera species actually oxygenate at night. While most plants take in CO2 by day and breathe back O2 and then at night slightly reverse that. Christmas cactus continue soaking up the night-time CO2 that other household plants may be releasing while your sleeping.
Christmas cactus also provide for healthier air during the day — through the automatic processes of filtration and transpiration, were they effectually eat up harmful pollutants such as ammonia and formaldehyde that are daily off-gassed from household furnishings and cleaning products.
It is also great in a kitchen, in an office and I’ve seen many in the window of a dry cleaner — so boy can they soak up and survive.
It is low fuss, with an excellent resistance to pests and disease. All you have to do is place it in a bright room, make sure you water over winter to facilitate its flowering period and occasionally mist and trick it into thinking its back in its native Brazil. Re-pot when it starts to outgrow the pot, after flowering is the best time.
These plants are easily propagated: simply take cuttings from April to August, allow the cuttings (break off at a leaf node) to dry before placing them in compost.
Water to firm-in and wait for them to take. That’s a whole bunch of Christmas pressies sorted for next year.