Article and Photos by Evin Morrison, Extension Master Gardener
As soon as the calendar flipped to November, the plant sections of the grocery and hardware stores filled with poinsettias, brightly blooming cacti, and so many other plant goodies. With all the upcoming merriment and holiday gatherings, many of us are destined to give or receive at least one of these plants in the coming weeks.
While beautiful upon arrival, without the proper care, your new holiday decoration might take a turn for the worse before the end of the year. Whether you’re gifting a poinsettia or ended up with a peace lily that you have no idea what to do with, these abbreviated care guides should help you keep your new holiday treat looking fresh through the new year— and with any luck, well into next year’s holiday season!
Would you believe me if I told you that this brightly colored holiday favorite is actually a succulent? Well, it’s not okay to fib this time of year, so you just have to trust me. They are a Euphorbia (Euphorbia pulcherrima) and have the same white latex “sap” in the stems that is a tell-tale sign of plants adapted to store water in drought like conditions.
Poinsettias come from Mexico and Central America and although we only see them around the chilliest parts of the year, they are very cold sensitive. The first step to keeping them happy is to buy them when outdoor temperatures are above 50 degrees F. If that’s not possible, protect them by wrapping them in a paper bag so none of the plant is exposed to the elements and take them straight home. This isn’t a plant you want to leave in the car while the weather outside is frightful.
Once your plant is home it’s important to keep it in indirect bright light for at least 6 hours a day. If put in direct light, it’s possible that the colorful bracts that you bought the plant for will revert to green. Although we assume the colorful parts of the plant are petals they are actually specialized leaves called bracts, which change to bright colors in order to attract pollinators to the much smaller flowers.
Remember that as succulents, poinsettias don’t want to be sitting in water. Keep the soil moderately moist throughout the season. These plants can be prone to root rot when left soggy. It’s also important to make sure they aren’t sitting too close to a vent. Although, they are a tropical plant, too much direct hot air will dry them out and can lead to leaf drop, or worse, spider mites.
After a holiday season full of cheery ”blooms” of often impressive size, poinsettias can last through winter and spring and then will thrive in our summer weather outdoors. Once temperatures are staying above 60 degrees, you can repot your poinsettia in fresh soil and cut it back to below the colorful bracts as the color will fade anyway. Set it outside in a protected space where it won’t bake in the sun, and you will see new growth start to emerge. If you are hoping to see the colorful bracts return, make sure you stop pruning in late summer. Poinsettia colors and blooms are triggered by longer nights and shorter days, so you should see some changes naturally happening as the days get shorter. Outside of a commercial greenhouse, though, it’s very difficult and time consuming to make your plant look as vibrant as it did when it first came home.
Poinsettias often get a bad reputation for being highly toxic to pets, but an Ohio State University Study has shown that, while you shouldn’t let your four-legged friends sit and munch on a whole plant, the toxicity levels aren’t as dangerous as many have been led to believe.
Yet another tropical plant that we’ve brought into our holiday traditions are the Thanksgiving and Christmas cacti. In the wild, these plants are epiphytic jungle cacti that attach themselves to trees high up in the rainforests of South America. In our homes, however, they are more adapted to being planted in a pot, in soil with good drainage.
It is often hard to tell which species you are bringing home or gifting, as both of these succulent plants are in the Schlumbergera genus, bloom late in the year, and are often sold with an incorrect label. The fastest way to tell the difference is the shape of the segments. Thanksgiving cacti have 2 or more spiky points along the edge, while Christmas cacti have more rounded segments. Similar to poinsettias with their modified leaves, these segments are modified stems and have the ability to produce roots at each connection point.
In the wild these plants grow attached to trees under the canopy, so in our homes they do best in bright shade and indirect light. In too much sun, the green segments can end up looking pale and sick. You should water these plants just like any other succulent, when the top layer of the soil is dry give the medium a good soak. Any excess water that drains from the soil should be discarded to avoid too much water remaining around the roots and causing rot. Keep an eye on your water temperature this time of year, as the water coming out of the tap can be very cold. Really cold or really hot water can damage root systems. It’s always best to give your plants a drink with room temperature water to avoid any stress.
Like poinsettias, the flowering of these cacti is brought on by longer, cooler nights. Unlike trying to bring poinsettias to rebloom, this process can easily be done in the home and rarely takes a lot of extra effort. Once the overnight temperatures warm up in the spring, holiday cactus varieties will be very happy in a shady spot outside. As a bonus, they very rarely need to be repotted and can live quite happily in a pot for years, not minding being a little pot bound. In fact, it’s theorized that this environment will give you better blooms come winter. Once temperatures dip into the 50’s and the nights get longer you will start to see buds forming. In a few weeks, you’ll have a fireworks display of color. They eventually can get very top heavy, so to avoid a mess from a tipped over plant, you can repot into a larger container, divide the plant into a few smaller containers, or prune and propogate.
If a piece of your plant gets knocked off in the holiday hustle and bustle, take the time to propagate, as each segment has the potential to create a whole new plant. Propagate a few pieces and by next year you’ll have homemade plant gifts for everyone hosting you this season.
Just getting interested in this holiday plant guide? No worries, part two will be out soon with even more “holiday” plants that you might be welcoming into your home this season!
Doubrava, Nancy, et al. “Thanksgiving & Christmas Cacti | Home & Garden Information Center.” Home & Garden Information Center | Clemson University, South Carolina, Clemson University Cooperative Extension, 17 Nov. 2022, https://hgic.clemson.edu/factsheet/thanksgiving-christmas-cacti/.
“Extension Today: Poinsettia Care | OSU Extension.” Home | OSU Extension, 13 Nov. 2022, https://extension.osu.edu/today/poinsettia-care.
Welch, William. “Poinsettias.” Home – Aggie Horticulture Aggie Horticulture, Texas Cooperative Extension, Texas A&M University, 10 Nov. 2022,