A healthy red poinsettia with marbled white throughout the leaves.
Red poinsettias marbled with white make a visual splash. Photo by Erol Ahmed on Unsplash.

Heather N. Kolich, ANR Agent, UGA Extension Forsyth County

Living plants are popular as holiday gifts and decorations, but I wait until the last minute to purchase poinsettias, because they always seem to drop leaves as soon as I bring them into my house. I’ve learned a few tricks, however, that help seasonal gift and decorative plants survive through the holidays and become enduring houseplants or landscape features.

Removing the foil wrapping from the pot is the first step in prolonging plant life. Although festive, the wrapping can hold water, creating an environment favorable to root rot. Instead, place the plastic pot in a decorative container that allows the soil to drain after watering. This also helps prevent toppling and protects furniture from spills.

When plants aren’t starring in a holiday display, provide lighting appropriate for the species and protect them from cold drafts and blowing heat. Use the finger test to manage watering. If the soil is dry 1-inch below the surface, it’s time to water. Wilting and dropping leaves are signs the soil is too dry. Yellowing of lower leaves may indicate overwatering.

Traditional bold red poinsettia with healthy, dark green leaves
Traditional red poinsettias are still favorites for holiday decorating. Photo by Jeffrey Hamilton on Unsplash.

Traditions and selections

 Traditional red-leafed poinsettias were introduced to the U.S. from Mexico in the 1820s by Ambassador Joel Poinsett, a statesman and amateur botanist from South Carolina. Poinsettias became a Christmas tradition after the Spanish conquest of Mexico, where Franciscan priests used the red bracts during a nativity procession, Fiesta of Santa Pesebre. Before that, the Aztecs used the plant for medicine and dye. The milky sap that they used to control fevers can be irritating to sensitive skin. Through selective breeding, poinsettias are now available in several colors, although red is still a best-seller.

A large grouping of pink and gold poinsettia plants.
Plant breeders have created poinsettias in a variety of colors, like pink and gold. Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash.

To keep poinsettias healthy throughout the season, keep them moist and provide bright, indirect light. Poinsettias may be moved outdoors after the last frost.

Stately amaryllis is another holiday favorite. Introduced from Chile around the same time as poinsettias, amaryllis plants boast large, trumpet-shaped flowers atop tall, sturdy stems. The bulbs can be forced to bloom during the winter in our climate, and they will rebloom when transplanted outdoors in the spring. Indoors, locate blooming amaryllis in a cool room out of direct sunlight to keep the blossoms on longer. Remove spent flowers as they fade.

A group of 5 amaryllis bulbs in brilliant red and white bloom.
Amaryllis bulbs will bloom again when planted outside in the spring. Photo by Jason Sung on Unsplash.

Fragrant, evergreen, and useful for cooking, rosemary features in several holiday traditions and legends. It is a symbol of friendship and fidelity and is associated with remembrance. Potted rosemary plants can be pruned into tabletop-sized Christmas trees or other shapes. While indoors, keep rosemary plants in bright, sunny west or south facing windows. Allow the soil surface to dry between watering. Transplant these evergreen herbs outdoors in the spring.

Under the right lighting, African violets offer up long-lasting flowers throughout the year. Available with white, blue, pink, and lavender blooms, these houseplants need 6-8 hours of sunlight daily for good flower production. During winter, they can get this from south and west facing windows. Move them to east or north facing widows for summer. Water the soil – never the leaves – and allow the surface to dry between waterings.

Collections of succulents have joined the traditional holiday cactus as popular gift plants. These low-maintenance plants are a great choice for beginning gardeners. They tolerate shallow soil, making them perfect for clustering together in small containers that fit nicely on windowsills, shelves, and office desks. Water deeply but infrequently, allowing excess water to drain out of the pot.