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Christmas - and the aftermath 31 Dec 2023 Some advice on what to do with Christmas gifts that are growing, plus seasonal tips.

“Oh, a Christmas Cactus, how lovely!”

Yes, there it is, all wrapped up in shiny paper, bursting with buds, and maybe even an open flower or two. “But”, you may well ask yourself, “how do I keep it going? I’ve had these before, and can NEVER get them to flower again.”

I wonder how many times up and down the land, this Christmas and every Christmas, such a scene has been played out. Of all the favourite “Christmas plants”, the so-called Christmas Cactus (real name Schlumbergera truncata or Schlumbergera buckleyi, and it isn't a cactus, but rather an epiphytic or epilithic succulent, in other words a plant with, in this case, no leaves, but rather flattened, fleshy stems, growing either in  composted matter caught in the bark of trees or in cracks in rocks) is actually one of the easiest to "keep going", though it won’t always reliably flower again at Christmas. In its native Brazil, Schlumbergera is called “Flor de Maio”, in other words, it flowers in May in the southern hemisphere. We should therefore expect it to do so in late autumn in England. To ensure this, give the plant a summer holiday outside in a shady place for about a month in July or August, without giving it any water. In, say, early September, bring it inside again, and resume regular watering and feeding (a few drops of a feed like Baby Bio in a good glug of tap water once a week or so should do the trick, and always let the excess water drain away properly). As to situation, their natural habitat is shady, humid, high altitude forest, so they need lots of light, but not lots of sun. I keep mine on a North-facing windowsill and find they often burst into flower within two or three weeks of being brought back into the house. They will sometimes do so again a couple of months later.

Bulbs, such as hyacinths, scented tazetta narcissi, or “Amaryllis” (really “Hippeastrum”) are also popular as gifts, and very easy to grow on, though they will all have been forced in order to bloom at Christmas, and will also revert to their natural springtime flowering period in subsequent years. With the first two, when the flowers have finished, remove their stems, but keep watering and feeding the plant so that the leaves can fuel up the plant for the following year. You can put both outside in the spring, tucked away in a well-lit spot in your garden that gets some sun but is shaded from the heat of the day, and plant them out the following autumn when they have become dormant. The hyacinths should be fully hardy, though subsequent racemes of flowers will probably be smaller than they were in their first year. Tazetta narcissi are a bit trickier, since they’re not reliably hardy, so shelter is essential. Amaryllis are definitely tender. Again, once they have finished flowering, cut off the large flowered stem, but keep watering and feeding. The foliage is rather untidy, so you may want to keep the plant in an inconspicuous place in the house – just don’t forget it’s there! After the leaves die down in the autumn allow the plant to dry out and store it somewhere pretty dark and frost-free, like a garage. Inspect it again in early spring, and you should see a small shoot poking out. Bring the plant inside, and feed and water as normal. A flower spike should appear shortly after, and the plant will bloom again within a couple of weeks.

Lastly I turn to the Poinsettia (Euphorbia pulcherrima), which has been a popular Christmas plant for almost two centuries, at least in the USA. It grows wild from Mexico to Guatemala, and is named after Joel Roberts Poinsett, the first US Minister to Mexico, who is credited with introducing the plant to his native country in around 1826. There is a charming Mexican legend is said to be behind the plant's association with Christmas. A poor girl called Pepita had no gift to bring to the child Jesus at Mass on Christmas Eve, but her cousin told her that the smallest gift, if given with love, would make the Christ child happy. She gathered a little bunch of weeds from the roadside, which, when she placed them before the crib, burst into bright red blooms. The congregation saw this as a miracle, and, ever afterwards the poinsettia has been known as the “Flor de Nochebuena” – “Flower of Christmas Eve”.

The brightly coloured bracts were originally red, but are now available in a variety of colours. though without miraculous intervention, the bracts' strong colour can only be obtained by a process called “photoperiodism”, requiring darkness for about fourteen hours a day over a period of several weeks, and really bright light for the remaining ten hours. If you wish to try this, by moving the plant daily from a dark cupboard to a brightly lit place in your house, and back again, for a period of about eight weeks from October, you are very welcome: I did once, and it was not only a real palaver, but frankly didn’t work. Moreover, plants bought from nurseries have often been dwarfed artificially, so will grow larger and often leggier in subsequent years (in their native environment they can grow to 4 metres/13 feet).

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In spite of the vile weather we’ve been having lately, I’m happy to report that Clematis cirrhosa is beginning to flower, a very cheering sight, and there is still lots of fruit on the crab apple Malus “Evereste”, one of the very best cultivars. As to vegetables, some advice straight from the Royal Horticultural Society: now is the time to sow broad beans in pots, placing them in a cold frame or unheated greenhouse. Also sow seed indoors for early crops of lettuces, summer brassicas (e.g. cabbages and cauliflowers), spinach, salad onions and turnips. If you have a heated propagator, it’s a good time to sow onion seed. The RHS also has very good advice on pruning apples and pears, another task for January (https://www.rhs.org.uk/fruit/apples/winter-pruning).

The shortest day has passed, so, at least in the northern hemisphere, the world has turned on its bright side.

 

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