Flowers that brighten winter’s gloom

Published 9:27 am Thursday, December 12, 2019

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To paraphrase (with apologies to the Bard) “Now is our uncivil season made gracious by this glorious profusion of holiday flowers.” Here, in this brief time between one election season and the next, let us all take a deep breath and enjoy the bounty the good Lord, Mother Nature and horticultural science have provided us in the way of seasonal flowers. You don’t have to be a master gardener to enjoy these beauties — but the Heart of Virginia Master Gardeners are always ready with information and advice, should you need it.

Let’s look at a few of the floral wonders readily available this time of year. Chrysanthemum, amaryllis, Christmas Cactus, poinsettia and narcissus add color and fragrance for an entire season and some can be kept over for next year and beyond.

Generally, while in bloom, all these plants require good light and sufficient water to prevent wilting. Find a spot for them away from heat sources and drafts. They do not need fertilizer while they are blooming.

The chrysanthemum is to Thanksgiving as the poinsettia is to Christmas. These plants are happiest in cooler weather, although the flowers do not survive frost. To preserve the rich colors indoors, keep them in a bright (not direct sun) spot and water when the soil is dry to the touch.

Keeping a Chrysanthemum through the winter indoors is not usually successful and it is better to discard the plant after flowering. Should you want to try planting it in the garden, remove the spent flowers, cut the foliage to three or 4 inches and plant in the garden in a spot that gets full sun in the summer. Mulch heavily and leave it alone until spring reveals whether it survived the winter.

The amaryllis normally blooms in the summer, but is a popular gift plant because it can be forced to produce stunning flowers during the holiday season. Amaryllis blooms are in colors ranging from white through pink, red, orange and yellow; some are double and some are striped or marked with a contrasting color.

To save the bulb for next year: when the flowers fade, cut off the bloom stalk, fertilize to encourage growth of new leaves, and water regularly to keep it growing. Then put it outside when the weather warms up in spring. Bulbs can be left in their original containers for two or more years before repotting. Bear in mind that the larger the bulb, the larger the flowers, so it is important to keep the leaves green and growing until fall, when you should bring the pot inside and rest the bulb in a dark place for a month or so. The flower stalk may be smaller than the first time, but beautiful nonetheless.

If you have one of the waxed amaryllis bulbs, it does not need to be potted in order to bloom, but it is unlikely to bloom again. These are best treated as cut flowers and discarded after the flowers have faded.

Very few plants are as closely associated with a holiday as Poinsettias are with Christmas. The showy portions of the poinsettia are actually colorful leaves called bracts. In addition to the traditional red, bracts can be pink, white, orange, and even purple and they can be marbled or swirled with a different color. Poinsettias come in many sizes and their bracts come in a wide range of shapes. Intensive breeding programs have produced new varieties that retain their foliage and bracts indoors, sometimes until spring with proper care.

Keep your poinsettias in well-lit areas, away from drafts and chilly air. Water when the surface of the soil is dry to the touch and mist the plants with a sprayer or place them on gravel trays. While it is possible to keep a poinsettia growing and have it bloom again next season, this process requires a lot of time and attention, and is not usually successful. It is better to discard the plant when its blooming is over and buy new plants next year.

Thanks to its name, fantastic, colorful blooms and low-maintenance reputation, Christmas cactus has been popular for decades. In addition to the original bright red flowers, this plant can now be found blooming in time for almost any holiday and in colors such as pink, orange and yellow. While it is in bloom, keep it in bright, indirect light and away from drafts. Be sure to water it when the top of the soil is dry to the touch. Despite the “cactus” in its name, it is a native of tropical rain forests and will drop its flower buds if allowed to get too dry. In a bright spot, with proper watering, the blooms should last for a couple of weeks.

It is well worth keeping your Christmas cactus for next year. After the flowers have fallen, move the plant into a cool sunny area, water it when the soil is dry on top. Feed it a liquid fertilizer each month from April to September. When all danger of spring frost is past, put the plant outside in a bright spot. It will tolerate a little direct sun and it likes to be pot bound, so you will not need to re-pot it this year. The Christmas cactus starts developing its flower buds when days become shorter and the nights become cooler, usually in September. When you see flower buds forming — and definitely before the first frost, bring the plant inside and place it in a brightly lighted place to finish growing its flower buds. Put the plant where you can leave it while blooming because it does not like to be moved once its flower buds are mature.

In addition to these, the Paperwhite narcissus, African violet and orchid are widely available to brighten your winter days. Contact the Virginia Cooperative Extension Service or a member of the Heart of Virginia Master Gardeners Association if you would like more information on growing these marvelous plants.

Jackie Fairbarns is a VCE Master Gardener and the radio voice of the Heart of Virginia Master Gardeners Association. The retired association executive gardens, both indoors and out, in Buckingham County and can be contacted at