Yard and Garden: Caring for Holiday Plants

AMES, Iowa — Holiday plants are one way to extend the cheer of the holiday season and serve as a reminder of cherished time we spent with friends and family. Horticulturists with ISU Extension and Outreach say keeping these plants looking good through the holiday season and beyond is not as difficult as some might expect.

How do I care for a poinsettia? 

Place the poinsettia in a plant sleeve or carefully wrap it before transporting the plant home. Exposing the poinsettia to freezing temperatures, even for a few minutes, may cause its bracts and leaves to blacken and drop. As soon as you get home, unwrap the poinsettia and place it near a sunny window or other well-lit location. However, don’t let the plant touch the cold window pane. Also, keep the poinsettia away from cold drafts or heat sources. Poinsettias prefer temperatures between 60 and 70 F.  

Water needs can be determined with your finger. Check the potting soil daily. When the soil surface becomes dry to the touch, water the plant until water begins to flow out the bottom of the pot. The pots of most poinsettias are placed inside decorative pot covers. When watering a poinsettia, carefully remove the pot covering, water the plant in the sink, then drop the poinsettia back into the pot cover.  

When given good care, a poinsettia should remain attractive for several weeks. Poinsettias are normally discarded after the holiday season. 

How do I care for a Christmas cactus? 

Plants commonly referred to as Christmas cacti include the true Christmas cactus (Schumbergera bridgesii), Thanksgiving cactus (Schumbergera truncata) and numerous hybrids.  
While Christmas and Thanksgiving cacti are similar in appearance, there are differences. The flattened stem segments (phylloclades) on the Christmas cactus have rounded margins. Christmas cacti typically bloom in December or January. The phylloclade margins on the Thanksgiving cactus possess two to four saw-toothed projections. Thanksgiving cacti typically bloom in November or December.  

While there are differences in their appearance and bloom time, the cultural requirements for Christmas and Thanksgiving cacti are the same.  

Christmas and Thanksgiving cacti prefer bright, indirect light and temperatures of 60 to 70 F. In spring and summer (when plants are actively growing) water plants about once every seven days and fertilize every two to four weeks with a dilute fertilizer solution. In fall and winter, keep plants a bit on the dry side. A thorough watering every seven to 10 days is usually sufficient.  

Christmas and Thanksgiving cacti are short-day plants. Plants will not bloom properly if exposed to artificial light at night. In late summer/early fall, place plants in a cool (60 to 65 F) location that receives bright light during the day, but no artificial light at night. An unused bedroom or basement may have the proper environmental conditions. Continue to give plants good, consistent care during flower bud development. Moving plants from one location to another, excessive watering or other marked changes to their care during flower bud development may cause the buds to drop off. The Christmas cactus can be moved and displayed in another room when the first flowers begin to open.  

When given good care and a favorable environment, Christmas and Thanksgiving cacti are long-lived plants. Plants are often passed from one generation to the next. 

How do I care for a Norfolk Island Pine? 

The Norfolk Island pine is a popular houseplant. During the holiday season, many individuals turn their plants into living Christmas trees by decorating them with miniature lights, ribbons and ornaments. The Norfolk Island pine thrives indoors when given good, consistent care. Place the Norfolk Island pine in a brightly lit location near an east, west or south window. Rotate the plant weekly to prevent the plant from growing toward the light and becoming lopsided. Thoroughly water the Norfolk Island pine when the soil surface becomes dry to the touch. Discard the excess water that drains out the bottom of the pot. From spring to early fall, fertilize the plant with a dilute fertilizer solution every two to four weeks. A temperature of 60 to 75 F is suitable for the Norfolk Island pine. Winter is often a difficult time because of low relative humidity levels in most homes. Raise the humidity level around the Norfolk Island pine with a humidifier or place the plant on a tray or saucer containing pebbles and water. (Make sure the water level does not reach the bottom of the pot.) Low relative humidity levels, insufficient light or excessively dry soil conditions may induce browning of branch tips and lead to the loss of the lower branches. 

Find answers to other yard and garden questions

Frequently asked yard and garden questions are answered on the Yard and Garden FAQs website at https://expert-hort.sws.iastate.edu/. Search the site by category or enter a term, such as poinsettia, and learn more.

Still have questions? Contact Hortline. 
Hortline is Iowa State’s hotline for home gardeners with lawn, garden and ornamental questions. The horticulturists with the hotline take phone calls Monday through Friday from 10 a.m. to noon and 1 – 4 p.m. Contact Hortline at 515-294-3108 or email questions to hortline@iastate.edu.
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