Sandy Parrill: You can keep holiday plants alive

(Clockwise from top left) Italian stone pine, arborvitae, poinsettias, Norfolk Island pine, spruce, and lemon cypress are popular holiday plants. What's your pick?Courtesy | Sandy Parrill

They are so tempting, those darling plants all dressed in shiny red, gold or green foil wrappers, decorated with candy canes and stars and sparkly ornaments to be joyfully presented as gifts for friends and family. Norfolk Island pines, lemon cypresses, arborvitaes, Italian stone pines, rosemary “trees” and more are in every store from garden center to lumberyard, rack upon rack, mingling with poinsettias, Christmas cacti, amaryllises and paperwhite narcissus. All bring an air of cheerful, living freshness into a house when the garden is asleep under a foot of leaves (or snow, if we get lucky).

So far I’ve resisted temptation, except for four Ziva paperwhite narcissus bulbs. It’s been a few years since I remembered to start them in time for holiday blooms. Though not universally loved for their intense aroma, I’ve missed the creamy white flowers filling the house with rich fragrance so much a part of my Christmas memories. While paperwhites can be potted in soil, I prefer growing them in water in a tall, straight-sided clear vase with a couple of inches of clear marbles (or small stones) in the bottom, bulbs placed on top and a few more marbles to anchor them. Water is added just barely to the base of the bulbs (if bulbs sit in water, they may rot); being sure to keep water topped off so the roots don’t dry out. The tall vase keeps them from flopping over when top heavy with flowers, and I’ll tuck in a few stems of rose hips or artificial red berries for added support. They will bloom in three to four weeks and last about as long. Paperwhites, though in the daffodil family, are tender tropicals (to zone 8) and can’t be forced to bloom again. When they’ve faded, I simply toss them in the compost.

Research conducted by the Flower Bulb Research Program of Cornell University indicates that adding a half-shot of vodka or gin — or in case of teetotalism, rubbing alcohol — to the water will stunt leaf growth 25% to 50% so they don’t topple over without sacrificing bloom size, but I’ve never personally practiced paperwhite pickling.

Many holiday pretties can be kept as houseplants, some can even be planted outdoors if one is lucky enough to keep them alive until spring. The first thing to do when they are brought home is remove that pretty foil or poke holes in it for drainage, as none of them like wet feet.

I put my poinsettia in a pretty basket instead with a tray underneath to catch drips from watering. Contrary to popular belief, poinsettias can be good houseplants and will bloom again but probably not in time for the holidays, more likely in mid- to late January. As do Thanksgiving and Christmas cactuses, poinsettias grow well summering outdoors and into the short days of fall to set buds before frost.

South Pacific native Norfolk Island pines are easy houseplants, growing 5 to 6 feet indoors, preferring bright light (but not full sun) and being a bit pot bound. Regular watering (when soil is dry to the touch) and light monthly fertilizing will keep it healthy — but if allowed to dry out, will lose bottom branches and get leggy.

Rosemary topiaries can be a little harder to maintain indoors, though it isn’t necessary to keep them trimmed. My 5-year-old rosemary plant once missed getting into our little greenhouse and had to overwinter in the back porch, shedding needles and making a general mess of itself. Mediterranean native rosemaries are fussy about water — too much and they drown, too little and they get all dramatic and die. They need full sun, which is often difficult at best indoors. Ours recovered in spring after a hard pruning, but now, I make sure it gets tucked into the greenhouse where it’s happy with cool winter temperatures, minimal water and shows off a cloud of dainty blue flowers in February.

Those little potted pines are a different story. Most are not happy indoors, and unfortunately, not with our outdoor climate either. Pretty, sage-green Italian stone pines or umbrella pines, also Mediterranean natives, are only hardy to zone 8. Grown in a container, they are wonderful decorative accents for an entry or patio, preferably in Texas or Florida. Tolerant of dry soil, they should be kept in bright light and watered when the top inch of soil is dry, but not allowed to dry out completely. A dedicated bonsai grower may keep one alive; I never could. Unless moving to San Antonio, I say enjoy them for the holidays and toss them when they die.

Pretty, soft, chartreuse lemon cypresses (Cupressus macrocarpa “Goldcrest”) can be planted outdoors in zone 7 (we may just barely make that if we don’t have more than 5 consecutive days of 10 degree weather). That is, if it can be kept alive until the optimum time to plant in early spring. They can be container grown, kept well-watered but not soggy—however, if allowed to dry out just one time, they won’t recover. I have seen a dwarf variety grown successfully in a Springfield conifer garden, but tags on those sold locally indicated a mature height of 30 feet.

Little arborvitaes, hemlocks and blue spruces are hardy and should be planted outdoors as soon as holidays are over. They need cold, tolerating indoor temperatures for only a week or so.

Cyclamens are cool-season plants and truly tough to grow. One will bloom for several weeks, if kept in a brightly lit, cool window and watered from the bottom, but ultimately nothing will prevent it dying back and going dormant. Popular as gift plants, cyclamens should be enjoyed while blooming, and tossed when done unless bringing one back from dormancy is an irresistible challenge. Though some cyclamen species are hardy, those beauties are tropicals and won’t live in the garden.

Tossing those difficult, dying plants doesn’t make anyone a bad gardener or plant parent, just a practical one. I regard them as pretty decorations and let them go, soothing that twinge of guilt with a bit of chocolate, then I read a good book, watch the birds I’m feeding and dream of spring.

Sandy and Jim Parrill garden at Chaos, their acre of the Ozarks in Joplin. Sandy is a lifelong gardener, a Missouri master gardener and winner of The Missouri Writers Guild 2018 first-place award for Best Newspaper Column. Jim is a former garden center owner and landscaper; both are past members of the Missouri Landscape and Nursery Association. Email them at and follow their Facebook page, A Parrillel Universe of Wonderful Things.

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