Selection and Care of Holiday Plants

While the poinsettia is the traditional plant of the Christmas season, the holiday cactus, cyclamen, and Norfolk Island pine are also excellent holiday plants. Regardless of which plant you choose, careful selection and proper care should insure enjoyment during the holiday season.


Poinsettias are available in red, pink, white, and gold. There are also variegated and marbled poinsettias. Modern varieties are compact, durable, and hold their bracts for several weeks. Select plants with dark green foliage and brightly colored bracts. Little or no pollen should be showing on the true flowers. (The true flowers are yellow to green, button-like objects located in the center of the colorful bracts.) Avoid poinsettias with wilted foliage, few or no lower leaves, or broken stems. Also, check the undersides of the leaves for insects. Obviously, no one wants to bring an insect-infested plant into the house. Whiteflies are a common problem on poinsettias.

Before venturing outside, place the poinsettia in a plant sleeve or carefully wrap it to prevent exposure to cold temperatures. Exposure to freezing temperatures, even for a brief moment, may cause the bracts and leaves to blacken and drop. As soon as you get home, unwrap the plant and place it near a sunny window or other well-lighted area. However, don't let the plant touch the cold window pane. Also, keep the poinsettia away from cold drafts or heat outlets. Poinsettias prefer temperatures between 60 to 70#176;F.

Water needs can be determined by the finger test. Check the potting soil daily. When the soil becomes dry to the touch, water the plant until it freely flows out the bottom of the pot. If the pot is wrapped in decorative foil, punch a hole in the foil at the bottom of the pot for water drainage and place a saucer underneath the pot. Discard the excess water which drains into the saucer. Today, many florists use molded plastic pot covers rather than foil. When watering these plants, carefully remove the poinsettia from the pot covering, water the plant in the sink, then drop it back into the molded pot cover. Both over- and underwatering cause problems for poinsettias. The lower leaves of overwatered plants turn yellow and drop. Dry plants wilt and also drop leaves prematurely.

Holiday Cactus

Holiday cacti, which includes the Christmas cactus, Thanksgiving cactus, and numerous hybrids, are easy to grow, long-lived plants. Cultivars of holiday cacti are available in shades of white, orange, pink, red, and purple.

Carefully wrap holiday cacti when transporting them outdoors in winter. Exposure to cold temperatures may damage the plants or cause the flower buds to drop off. Indoors, holiday cacti prefer bright, indirect light, temperatures of 60 to 70#176;F, and an evenly moist soil during flowering.

After flowering, place plants in a slightly cooler area and water less frequently. The plants should be kept on the dry side during the remainder of the winter. Water the plants more frequently during their active growth period from spring through summer. Also, fertilize holiday cacti approximately once a month during the growing season.

Flowering of holiday cacti is controlled by temperature and daylength. In the fall, place the plants in a cool location (50 to 65#176;F) which receives only natural daylight. Good, consistent care is especially important during flower bud development. Moving plants from one location to another, drafts, and excessive watering during flower formation may cause the buds to drop off the plants.


The cyclamen is the ideal flowering plant for a cool environment. The distinctive plant has dark green, heart-shaped leaves with silver markings. The flowers, produced on long stems held above the foliage, point downward and somewhat resemble badminton shuttlecocks or "birdies." Flower colors are available in shades of white, pink, and red. Select healthy, dark green plants which have just begun to flower. A check beneath the leaf canopy will reveal the number of unopened buds. The cyclamen should be placed in a sunny, cool location. A temperature of 50 to 65#176;F is ideal. Keep the soil moist, but avoid getting water in the crown of the plant as it may promote rotting. Fertilize the plant every 2 weeks while in bloom. When given proper care, individual flowers may last 3 to 4 weeks and plants may bloom continuously for several months.

Norfolk Island Pine

The Norfolk Island pine is a popular evergreen houseplant. It also makes an attractive living Christmas tree when decorated with miniature lights and ornaments.

The Norfolk Island pine should be placed in bright, indirect light with temperatures between 55 to 70#176;F. Keep the soil evenly moist. Low relative humidity levels, insufficient light, or infrequent watering may induce browning of branch tips and lead to the loss of the lower branches.

Plants add warmth and charm to the home during the holidays. With careful selection and proper care, these plants should remain attractive at Christmas, New Year's, and beyond.

This article originally appeared in the November 5, 1999 issue, pp. 130-131.

Links to this article are strongly encouraged, and this article may be republished without further permission if published as written and if credit is given to the author, Horticulture and Home Pest News, and Iowa State University Extension and Outreach. If this article is to be used in any other manner, permission from the author is required. This article was originally published on November 5, 1999. The information contained within may not be the most current and accurate depending on when it is accessed.