Article and Photos by: Evin Morrison, Extension Master Gardener (excepted where otherwise cited).
The holiday season is in full swing. It’s the most wonderful time of the year and the busiest, too. Between holiday parties and the many trips to the grocery store, I can guarantee that a plant person like you has incorporated at least one festive plant into your décor this year. Whether it was a gift, or you just couldn’t help yourself amongst the poinsettias at the hardware store, you’ve now got a new plant to care for along with all the holiday craziness.
In Part 1 of this series, you can learn about caring for poinsettias and holiday cacti. While those are two of the most popular plants to pop up this time of year, there are a few more that are worth bringing home and shining a spotlight on.
Norfolk Island Pine
While the Araucaria heterophylla (Norfolk Island Pine) is a cute tree that makes a great living substitution for a Christmas tree, especially in small spaces, the truth is it isn’t in the pine tree family at all. In fact, it is a temperate, rainforest plant that would much rather be dusted in warm ocean mist than snow. So, despite the sprinkled-on snow, glitter and plastic ornaments that so often don these trees this time of year, don’t be fooled. For your Norfolk Island Pine to thrive to be decorated next year, it needs to stay in a relatively humid (above 50%) and warm location in your home, never dipping below 50 degrees Fahrenheit. As a rainforest plant, it needs to be well-watered, but don’t leave soil constantly soaking because that will lead to root rot. You’ll know if it starts to dry out because the usually bright green and soft “needles” will turn a brownish, gray and dry up into a spiky version of the once-lush plant.
Norfolk Island Pines are the puppies of holiday plants. It’s cute and small now, but it’s going to grow and it’s going to grow a lot. In the wild they can reach around 200 feet! Of course, in a home, where conditions are never as ideal as in the wild, you won’t have to worry about it shooting up to the ceiling anytime soon. Holding back fertilizer will help keep it more compact and slow the growth. Keep in mind, it’s always important to research what full-grown plants look like before you bring one home to avoid a surprise when it outgrows the space you intended.
Once temperatures rise, Norfolk Island Pines can make wonderful patio plants. They will thrive in our summer humidity and enjoy the morning sun. Make sure they are protected from the blasting afternoon sun and increase watering since the heat will lead to faster evaporation. Setting it out to enjoy a good rainstorm is also a great way to wash off the winter dust it collected in your home and give it a nice drink. Don’t worry about pruning this plant. Other than cutting off declining branches, there won’t be a noticeable benefit of trimming back.
Frost Moss (Selaginella martensii)
The Selaginella scopulorum (frost moss) pops up this time of year because it looks like a tiny evergreen tipped in snow. It is in fact evergreen but can be very difficult to care for in your home. Often referred to as a spike moss or a club moss, it’s not really a moss at all. Many times, they are also compared to ferns, but unlike ferns that reproduce via spores, selaginellas spread and put down roots as they go. The comparison most likely comes from the similar care requirements that ferns and spike mosses share: They need a lot of moisture. Unfortunately, after missing only one watering your frost moss will likely decline rapidly, so it’s best to keep them in a terrarium-like setup where the humidity is high all the time.
These plants are often found in floral departments potted into their own festive containers, but to save yourself a daily watering routine, try using them in a planted arrangement with a few other water-loving plants. Grouping plants is a great way to increase the humidity around them and by putting multiple plants with similar requirements together in one container you save yourself a few waterings. Planting these together with ferns would make a beautiful display, especially in a humid bathroom.
If you think about where this spreading, ground cover grows in the wild, it only makes sense that it will thrive in medium, dappled light. Full sun will burn its tender foliage and evaporate the moisture that you will need to constantly maintain.
A popular gift this time of year, especially for a planty person, is a Hippeastrum (amaryllis). While they can be bought in bloom, amaryllis more often come in a kit and make a really great gift for a DIY gardener.
Amaryllis are very large bulbs that eventually bloom into large, gorgeous flowers that make a lovely holiday display. The best part of amaryllis is that they are easy to keep year to year for a stunning show every December. Much like getting your Christmas cactus to bloom in time for the holidays, some planning is needed to make these bulbs stick to a seasonal schedule.
If you have an amaryllis already started this year, you might notice that the flower is a little too heavy for its stalk. Staking the main stalk is a very common fix, and it not only keeps the plant looking its best but helps keep the stalk from snapping. Once the flower fades, you can cut away the stalk with a clean blade and leave the lance-shaped leaves to continue to feed the bulb. In the spring and summer months, they can be moved outside, but they are not frost tolerant, so make sure to bring them back indoors for any colder nights. Amaryllis can be fertilized during this time. The goal is to ensure the healthiest plant possible before it reblooms.
In late summer (September), you will want to bring in your plant for a forced dormancy period. At this time, you will place it in a dark, cool space, withhold water and fertilizer and let all the foliage die back. While it may seem like you are killing the plant, it’s merely a resetting period so that it can start over fresh. All the nutrients and growing power have been stored in the bulb over the last year. After about eight weeks (November), you should see signs of new green growth. At this point you can pull it out, pot it in fresh soil and enjoy another beautiful bloom. If you want to make sure that your plant is looking its best by a certain day, pull out a calendar and count backwards. Count back the six weeks that it will take the amaryllis to bloom after replanting, then another eight weeks for the dormancy period. The date you land on is when you should bring it inside to begin the process.
- Johnson, Ken. “How to take care of amaryllis and get them to rebloom.” University of Illinois Extension.
https://extension.illinois.edu/blogs/good-growing/2021-12-03-how-take-care-amaryllis-and-get-them-rebloom. Accessed 20 Dec. 2022.
- Lachelin, Lucinda. The BRAHMS Project, University of Oxford, Department of Plant Sciences. “Oxford University Plants 400: Selaginella Species.” BRAHMS: Oxford.
https://herbaria.plants.ox.ac.uk/bol/plants400/Profiles/st/selaginella. Accessed 20 Dec. 2022.
- Miklas, Lois. “Norfolk Island Pines.” Penn State Extension | The Pennsylvania State University. 17 Nov. 2021. https://extension.psu.edu/norfolk-island-pines.