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Holiday plants with staying power

If you're giving a plant as a gift this year, be sure it's one that likes our climate well enough to last awhile.

By John A. Starnes Jr., Special to the Times
Published December 15, 2007


Each holiday season many of us receive live plants and gardening kits, but then we're at a loss to make them thrive. We don't want generous givers to visit months later and see their gift a shriveled brown stalk or missing in action, gone to the compost heap. So let's review what to do with the plants we receive this season, or the ones we're thinking about giving.

Some plants simply won't grow indoors here, or at all in Florida. Knowing this can spare you wasted effort and needless guilt when a plant fades despite your best efforts, or can direct you toward a better choice as a gift.

At the top of the local no-grow list are those charming potted Colorado blue spruces sold as mini-Christmas trees. They grow easily in the mountains of Colorado. But they're as likely to survive and thrive here as a bird of paradise is in Denver. Enjoy the plant's lovely scent while it lasts, but regard this plant only as a short-lived winter annual in Florida.

Also on the list are those window herb kits that promise wave after wave of fresh, fragrant herbs. Almost no indoor windowsill is sunny enough to support rosemary, mint, basil and oregano. Herbs grown indoors seem to be magnets for whitefly and spider mites.

Think of nearly all potted bulbs as one-time shows to be savored into January, then discarded. Paperwhites, narcissus, hyacinths, Dutch iris and tulips all require a much cooler climate than ours to come back year after year. But miracles can happen, so go ahead and plant them in a north-facing semi-shady area just to see what happens. Skip the guilt trip if they don't bloom again.

A better botanical bet

If a potted Dutch amaryllis bulb turns up under your tree, lucky you. These have become a popular holiday gift, with good reason: They thrive in Florida landscapes with next to no care once they're established.

You can grow a potted amaryllis bulb indoors year after year if it is placed near a very sunny window. But you will get far better results if you replant it in a decorative 2-gallon pot with a drainage hole and dish and grow it outdoors year-round. Next November, withhold water to help induce dormancy. Resume watering with a splash of fish emulsion in late February. Then, each spring as those amazing flower stalks emerge and begin to open, bring it indoors to enjoy for a couple of weeks.

It is easier, though, to plant them about 4 inches deep in soil in a sunny landscape bed so that the "neck" protrudes above the soil line. Water them a few times the first month, then forget them. They root fast, begin to multiply quickly, and in a few springs that one bulb will turn into a colorful colony of a dozen or more that will live for years.

If you don't get an amaryllis as a gift, buy the bulbs loose at garden centers, order from a catalog, or prevail upon friends when they thin their clumps.

Amaryllis defend their splendor with no help from us. If "lubber" grasshoppers chew their leaves off in spring, they regrow, then go dormant and dry up in winter for a needed rest. If a freeze zaps the newly emerged spring leaves or first buds, new ones will replace them. They tolerate acid and alkaline soils, drought and the summer monsoons.

About the only things that will kill them are swampy soil and herbicides. The only fault with them I can find is that they are scentless, though I hear that one called "Rio" is as fragrant as any lily.

Perennial favorite

The poinsettia is another living holiday gift that thrives in Florida yards. Just cut the plant back by half, then plant the remaining "stubs" in a sunny spot in your landscape at least 30 feet from a bright nighttime light source, such as a halogen security light or street lamp. They need the short days of fall and winter to form buds, then blossoms. (If you have a huge, leafy poinsettia that never blooms, this may be why. Some people put them in a closet each night from late October until December so the plants get 12 hours of darkness.)

Poinsettias, member of the Euphorbia family, are tough, drought-tolerant and likely to cause upset stomachs if eaten by children or pets.

John A. Starnes Jr., born in Key West, is an avid organic gardener and rosarian who studies, collects, cultivates and hybridizes roses for Florida. He can be reached at

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The more amaryllis, the merrier

More than 75 amaryllis (Hippeastrum) species exist in the wilds of South America and Africa, but just a handful have been crossbred over the past centuries into the stunners we often see sold as holiday gifts.

Those giant Dutch hybrids can boast husky trumpets 8 inches across atop stems as thick as a child's arm. They come in salmon, white, pink, many shades of red and varied striped patterns.

The Butterfly Amaryllis grows in trees in South America and thrives in Central Florida gardens, each bloom wildly pinstriped in maroon, white and chartreuse and flared somewhat like an orchid from Mars.

Vast colonies of the species H. puniceum often grow in older neighborhoods, bristling with orange-salmon trumpets highlighted by white throats and lime green centers.



[Last modified December 14, 2007, 10:08:24]

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