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Magenta Christmas Cactus





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Paper White Narcissus (Narcissus papyraceus)

Paper White NarcissusNarcissus paperwhites frreshly planted and already growing. Photo by Randall Prue

The freshly and powerfully intoxicating scent of paperwhites is one of the most refreshing escapes from our tedious northern winter. Here, a month ahead of the solstice, we see a pot of freshly planted paperwhites and the box from which they eagerly escaped. Each of five boxes that I picked up late November contained five firm bulbs (bulbs should always be firm when we buy them), each with a growing tip bursting to get going.

But wait! Why was that so easy? Why no weeks of chilling? Why no wait? Why no fridge, cold room, root cellar? Because these narcissi hail from the Mediterannean region where they enjoy a mild winter.

It really is that easy to enjoy scent, bloom, and leaf during the bleak northern winter. Inside the package shown, which cost me about $6.00 (these days, $6.00 buys one small rooted cutting in a pot).

If you want to enjoy these bulbs again, you need only respect its growth cycle and allow it to enjoy the important feeding and rest phases. After flowering, and like most flowering bulbs (e.g., tulips, garlic), the plant continues through a period of growth. During this period, the foliage (the leaves) continues and is feeding the bulb for the next season's blossom. This is the best time to feed (fertilize) the plant. For more on the topic of feeding plants, see the topic "Feeding", beginning on page 21 of Keeping Them Alive


Many gardeners report that they have cut down a bulb's leaves after flowering ends. If you do cut down the leaves on narcissus or any other bulb, you might as well dig it up and toss it into the compost. Without the feeding and nutrient storage that takes place during this feeding phase, the bulb will not likely bloom again. Typically, if leaf removal is repeated, the plant slowly deteriorates and dies. 

The next phase of the growth cycle of a bulb is rest and relaxation (this applies to all tulips, hippeastrum, garlic, perennial onions, etc.). After the leaves die back, the bulb rests. How long it rests may vary from species to species, but typically the rest period is the length of winter in its native habitat. During the rest cycle, the bulb wants only just enough moisture to prevent it from drying up. The firm bulb contains everything it needs for the next season of growth and flowering. It is not feeding, so any attempt at feeding is pointless. Like hippeastrum (what we call amaryllis), I leave paperwhites in soil in pots, tucked under a table in the sun room, and have enjoyed repeated bloom for several years with many of them.  

Poinsettia (Euphorbia pulcherrima) from Mexico

245-pink-poinsettia-200Using my simple methods, this poinsettia blooms year after year. Photo by Randall PruePoinsettia is named after Dr. Joel R. Poinsett who introduced this plant to America. It grows outdoors to 1.5 metre, but the ones which are sold here are largely hybrids, which have been bred to be short and compact, with a lot of colored leaves (red, pink, salmon, white, and variegated combinations).

Destroying the Myths

Two notions about Poinsettias persist, and both are incorrect:

  • That Poinsettia is toxic to pets and to humans.
  • That Poinsettia has to be put into a closet to induce blooming.

Read on for enlightenment!

This article is based on the topic (Poinsettia) in Keeping Them Alive, but contains additional "bonus" material not available in 1982. The photo at left is a pink poinsettia tree (has a main trunk like a tree, as opposed to the small bushes that are more common) that I was given in 2006. This photo was taken in January 2009 and marks its third straight year of blooming without any tedious "closet business" or light management tricks. It blooms because I feed it well and give it the basic environment that it likes (think "Mexico") without over-doing it.


The plant produces the colored leaves at the same time as it produces flowers, which are above the colored leaves. It you care to refer to the colored leaves as flowers, go ahead. They are an integral part of the flowering process.

Everybody's big concern, of course, is to keep the plant in bloom for as long as possible, and to have it flower annually. The process is not complicated, but it is precise and involved.

After Christmas, a Poinsettia may keep its coloured levaes until June, if well cared for. At this time, your objective is to enjoy the plant. Feed it enough to keep it healthy. Keep it in a bright spot. It likes fresh warm air with a slight drop at night (not below 10° C. or 50° F.).

It does not want to dry completely, and will immediately droop and lose leaves if it does. Once it has drooped, it does not always recover (even if watered promptly). Overly wet soil may cause lower leaves to drop.

In spring, as soon as nights are above 10° C., your Poinsettia can be repotted, using PHILODENDRON SOIL (see "Potting Soils" on page 25 of Keeping Them Alive), in preparation for its period of active growth, and moved outdoors. It enjoys full sun (to read about how to mange the move outdoors, read "Light" on page 11 of Keeping Them Alive).

It will grow thick and quick throughout summer. Pruning should be done from spring to mid-summer if you want a short full plant. The tree shown here is cut back severely each spring. By fall, it is always lush and ready to bloom.

Here Comes the Closet

In fall, when night temperatures drop below 10° C. or 50° F., bring your Poinsettia indoors. It now wants a night that is at least 12 hours long, and many people put the plant in a closet or other dark place, at night to accomplish this. Do not leave it in a closet for 2 months, as many have confessed doing. It still wants light in the daytime, but for less than 12 hours. It has been said that any light on the plant at night will stop it from flowering. I know people (including myself) whose Poinsettias have bloomed with no special effort to give it long nights. Once buds have formed, the flowering process has begun and will continue to completion without long nights. I have never put a Poinsettia into a closet, and I have enjoyed lush colorful growth and blossom year after year.

Common Insect Pests and Problems

Watch for aphids and mites. Over many decades, I have enjoyed the company of many Poinsettias, and not once have I had to deal with a harmful insect. If you ever do have to deal with an insect on a Poinsettia it is most likely going to be on a "new" one (newly purchased, just left the greenhouse). I find these plants to be extremely sensitive. Forgetting to water a new Poinsettia could be fatal, whereas my older acclimated and established plants can tolerate a big of neglect. For more on this topic, see the introduction to "Here's Where You Get Involved" on page 15 of Keeping Them Alive.

Is a Poinsettia Toxic?

I searched the Internet for the answer to that question, because in my entire life, I have never heard of an actual instance of any person or pet suffering any ill effect from ingesting Poinsettia parts. I found a very interesting artice at, the website of the House Rabbit Society. The short answer is "non toxic" and in the longer version impressive research and statistics are cited (studies by Ohio State University on the toxicity of Poinsettia; statistics from POISINDEX, the information resource for poison control centers). Nonetheless, according to, a Bruskin/Goldring Research poll reveals that 50% of Americans continue to believe that a Poinsettia is toxic.

How many folks are denying themselves the joy of owning this colorful and long-lasting plant?

Christmas Cactus (Schlumbergera, Central and S. America)

Magenta Christmas CactusUsing my simple methods, this Christmas cactus blooms year after year. Photo by Randall Prue.

where night are cool (17°-18° C, about 65° F.). There are several types of Schlumbergera and at least one type of Zygocactus. They are called Christmas, Thanksgiving or Easter cactus. The name given to one of these plants may be its correct name, or may the name of the next holiday.

You may have one that always blooms at the same time of year. I have known this plant to change its mind and bloom at irregular intervals. Many growers control the plant's environment to trigger blooming when it best suits their marketing needs.

Christmas cactus is a succulent from the Cactus family. It required much more water than a desert cactus. In fact, the soil (PHILODENDRON SOIL (see "Potting Soils" on page 25 of Keeping Them Alive)), can be kept moist at all times. Allowing the soil to dry will not harm the plant, but it may have to be left sitting in water to remoisten the soil.


Ideal conditions are: warm days and cool nights; and bright light (away from full sun). The plant will grow in less light, but is not likely to bloom.

High humidity is not critical, but will make for nicer foliage and easier flowering. Misting is good for the plant and helps to keep leaves clean.

This plant normally grows through spring and summer, goes into dormancy in the fall, and then begins to flower.

Encouraging a Christmas cactus to produce its white, pink, red or purple flowers is the concern of a great number of people. In autumn, the plant should be entering its dormant period. New leaves are not likely at this time. When this happens, ease up on the water. Allow the plant to dry between light waterings.

It should have at least 12 hours of darkness, with light in the daytime. Stop all feeding. Night temperatures should be below 18° C. or 65° F. Daytime temperature should be cooler than during the plant's growing season. If a long night is not something that you can provide, a night temperature between 5°-10° C. (40°-50° F.) can compensate for it.

When buds form, increase watering and begin a light feeding program. If buds form but fail to open, the plant may need more water or higher humidity.

Put the plant on a normal feeding schedule while it is growing (or during its active growing season to encourage it to grow) and once the first buds have opened.

A leaf cutting with several segments (at least 2) will root.

Watch for mealybugs.

Norfolk Island Pine (Araucaria excelsa)

Norfolk Island Pine in Native Habitat. Photo by KahuroaThis is a pine tree and it does come from Norfolk Island in the South Pacific, off the coast of Australia. Imagine—a pine tree that you can keep indoors.

They grow naturally to 60 metres or taller. The size of pot you grow it in will determine how tall yours may grow, but never repot to a pot more than 2" larger at a time. Use STANDARD POTTING SOIL (see "Potting Soil" on page 25 of Keeping Them Alive.). I have seen them in PHILODENDRON SOIL and they didn't seem to mind it.

This is not the easiest plant to keep indoors. It is very important o keep the soil moist at all times. Just before it dries completely, water enough to moisten the soil without soaking it. They definitely do not like to be dry. As soon as a Norfolk Pine dries, the branches will start to brown and dry. As with any pine, these branches are irreplaceable. Branches will fall off from the bottom off and there is not way to have the plant grow more to replace them.




Humidity should be kept above 30%. Norfolk Pines enjoy being misted.

Bright light is best—neither full sun nor too dark, although partial shade is OK. They prefer a cool spot.

New plants can be had from seed or from a tip that has been rooted (use the main stem tip. Side shoots do not produce well-shaped plants).

Paling foliage is an indication of mites, which are very hard to find and treat on a pine tree. You may find mealybugs more easily, although they aren't much easier to treat because of the many small needles and crevices.