Poinsettia, Christmas cactus, mistletoe sprigs and wreaths of evergreen foliage like red-berried holly and fragrant fir are traditional standards for the holiday season.
With timeless appeal and abundant availability at this time of year, these plants make great and affordable gifts, alive with the history, scent, color and lore of winter flora.
Here's a brief botany lesson about some of our seasonal favorites:
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The scarlet poinsettia blooms which sit atop classic potted greenery are actually not flowers, but specialized leaves which develop different colors when they receive fewer than 11 hours of light each night.
The actual flowers are less conspicuous, multi-faceted little buttons at the center of each leaf group. Hybridizers have expanded the color range from red to include white, yellow, pink and purple varieties, as well as variegation.
Poinsettias are native to Central America, so must be kept indoors in bright, indirect light here in Kentucky during the cold winter months. They're named after Joel Roberts Poinsett, who in 1825 became the first U.S. Ambassador to Mexico, and was later involved in founding the Smithsonian Institution. An interest in botany led him to collect and propagate this plant which, over the last two centuries, has come to be associated with the red and green of Christmas.
Most people discard or compost their poinsettia when colors fade, but if you enjoy a gardening challenge, it is possible to re-pot, prune back, and keep your poinsettia alive to bloom again next year.
It does best if planted outdoors in bright, indirect light during the summer. When temperatures drop in late September, you'll need to bring your poinsettia indoors, and keep a strict dark and light exposure schedule to initiate the color change.
Check out Pemberton's Greenhouses (555 Keller Court, (859) 254-6552) at Pembertonsgreenhouses.com for one of the region's best-known sources and a display of a variety of color choices.
Unlike the poinsettia, the Christmas cactus is a breathtaking winter-flowering houseplant that is easy to propagate and bring into bloom year after year. It's not uncommon to find specimens which have been handed down through generations.
These cacti — whether the old-fashioned reddish-pink Christmas variety or more recently developed hybrids of yellow, orange, pink and white that tend to bloom around Thanksgiving — are exotic, translucent-petaled flowers which hang at the end of cascading chains of one-inch segmented stem sections. To grow more, just break off a chain of a few segments, and root it in water or sterile potting soil.
There are many cultivars of these cacti, which were initially gathered from their native coastal Brazil in the mid-1800s. More recently, various hybridizing and also chemical mutation techniques have produced not only new color effects but feathering on the petal edges.
To encourage flowering, the plants should be kept for about six weeks in a cool (55-61 degree F.) room, with an uninterrupted period of darkness lasting about 16 hours each night until buds appear. Alternatively, you can bring established plants outdoors during the summer, keeping them in a bright but shaded location, until mid-October, then bring them indoors; this should naturally get buds to set.
One of the best evergreen cutting plants for use in winter floral arrangements is the evergreen American holly, both for its shiny and dangerously pointed rich green leaves and its abundance of bright red berries.
One cultivar selected as outstanding for planting in Kentucky is 'Judy Evans.' The founder of Yew Dell gardens in Crestwood (Yewdell.org), Theodore Klein himself discovered this specimen growing at Cave Hill Cemetery in Louisville in 1940, and brought it into production in his nursery. The trees, which can grow to about 30 feet tall, bear male and female flowers on different trees; you need to have both for pollination and berries to form.
To learn more about the American holly, you can also visit the Bernheim Arboretum and Research Forest in Clermont (Bernheim.org); it is home to the Hubbuch American holly collection, containing more than 160 American holly cultivars.
Have you ever taken a drive in the country, and noticed green plant balls hanging in the bare-branched walnut or black cherry trees? Chances are, you've found some mistletoe. How did this parasitic native plant become a catalyst for holiday kisses? Got to the Kentucky Native Plant and Wildlife blog at http://bit.ly/1z6VzV7 for an explanation and story.
Both holly berries and mistletoe provide a food source and enhanced wildlife habitat for birds and other small animals.