Saturday, December 26, 2009

The Christmas plant dilemma

In the wake of the holidays, I always face the decision of what to do with the various holiday plants that I have acquired over the season: the miniature pines, the poinsettias, the bulbs. Should I keep them, and nurse them along for another season? Am I hardened enough to toss them out without so much as a blink? I am loathe to trash them, largely because it feels so wasteful. Yet I have never been particularly successful at maintaining these plants for future use. No wonder, too, since most are tropicals, and ill-suited for my cold, dry house.

My worst case was a potted Norfolk Island pine that I received as a "Christmas tree" in the winter of 2005. I knew I couldn't maintain the light, temperature and especially the moisture levels that it needed to thrive. It plodded on for years in a sorry little corner of two different guest rooms, drying out all too often and dropping needles until it resembled a Dr. Seuss-like umbrella tree. Finally, I read an article by Gerald Klingerman, from the University of Arkansas extension, who advised a hilarious yet very wise approach: the "winter hardiness test". He writes, "Leave your overgrown Norfolk Island pine on the patio and see if it'll survive an Arkansas winter. Of course it won’t, but you can appease any feelings of guilt by saying you were doing it in the name of science." Done and done.

In the course of providing substandard care to multiple houseplants, I have learned that unless a plant is particularly delicate, it will soldier on despite a harsh environment and neglectful care. The plant won't thrive, but it will survive. My Norfolk Island pine is a testament to a pathetic, struggling survival. The only thing sadder than a house with no plants is a house with two or three neglected pots of sorry-looking specimens. These plants, dried out, leggy and sometimes infested with various blights, bring a funereal gloom to the house. The worst part is that I placed it in the guest room-- hardly a way to bring a festive, welcoming mood to out-of-towners.

So, now I face my poinsettias. Should I keep them? I could follow the instructions available on multiple gardening websites about putting them in a closet and giving them 12 hours of darkness each night. That way, I could make them bloom again for next year. The cheapskate and the budding botanist in me want to try. But what if they turn out sad and ugly, rather than the lush specimens I have now? I guess I can always try the "winter hardiness test". The larger lesson for me may be to just ask well-meaning gift givers to find a different "gardener Christmas present". Perhaps a packet of seeds, or a new trowel. And as for the other houseplants sitting around the house, I will keep the best, like my beautiful peace lily. But the bedraggled kalanchoe that was a Valentine's present three years ago just needs to go. It is certainly a sorry testament to enduring Valentine's love. But maybe, just maybe, I will find the right care instructions on the Internet and finally figure out how to get it to rebloom. I'm not ready to test it's winter hardiness just yet.


  1. Oh that Kalanchoe needs chucking after all this time - the leaves must be huge by now. It should have flowered twice a year for you but I think nowadays they don't ever flower as well as the first flush. I would be fortunate to have a leaf on a poinsettia in my house at this time of year as my conditions don't suit them - I tend them commercially so really I want to escape from them when I get home. Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year from Scotland

  2. I have terrible luck with house plants. I do bring in plants for the winter (herbs that I use enough during the winter to keep me checking on them), but would really not like it if my friends and family gave me a bunch of tender plants that would need special care. I like the "in the name of science" approach. If they survive - won't you have something to blog about! :)