Are you wearing a poppy today to mark the holiday? If so it is probably paper. While Papaver rhoeas (with the common name Flanders poppy or corn poppy) can grow anywhere in the United States, it is an annual that blooms in spring and summer and won’t stand up to frost.

Poppies are associated with Veterans Day (in other countries called Remembrance Day or Armistice Day, originally established to mark the date World War I ended) because they were the first flowers to blossom in the torn-up battlefields in Belgium, creating a sea of red and a sign of hope. The red symbolically represents all the blood spilled in that and other wars, and the black at the center represents people mourning those who were killed.

Other plants are associated with a specific holiday because they are at the peak of their beauty during that time. But poppies are the exception. Usually, you can buy a plant or grow it, and be fairly certain that it will be at its peak beauty when you want it to be.

Hold on, some of you say. The Christmas cactus always blooms around Thanksgiving.

That is a case of mistaken identity. What you think is a Christmas cactus is actually a Thanksgiving cactus, which is more popular than the true Christmas cactus. Both are in the Schlumbergera family, with the Christmas cactus being S. Buckleyi and the Thanksgiving cactus S. Truncata. The Thanksgiving cactus has flowers that are a vibrant purple-pink, while the Christmas cactus blossoms a more muted red-orange.

Because people might be buying these plants before they are in bloom, it will be easier to tell the plants apart by their stems.

Schlumbergera have no leaves, but the stems grow in segments, called clades. With the Thanksgiving cactus, each segment has points at the end closest to the flowers, while the Christmas cactuses are rounded or oval.

An Easter cactus also exists, but that is in the Rhipsalidopsis family (which adds to the confusion), and its clades are rounder than those of the Christmas cactus.

All of them are epiphytes, like orchids, meaning that in their native Brazil they grow on trees or rocks, not in soil. When grown inside, it is best to use a cactus mix potting soil or a type of bark. They like to be misted but should be watered only when the top two inches of the planting medium is dry. They don’t want full sun.

Poinsettias are the classic Christmas plant, historically coming in the holiday’s traditional colors of red and green although they now come in a variety of colors.

The colorful parts aren’t flowers, but bracts, which are modified leaves. The actual flowers are insignificant, located at the end of the stalks.

We always buy our poinsettias early, right after Thanksgiving, to get the season going. People planning to compost them after the holidays can put them anywhere in the house, water them a couple of times a month and then put them in the bin when they are sick of seeing them.

Getting them to produce color a second season takes several steps. They should go in a sunny window and be watered regularly until about March, when the blossoms will fade. They should then be pruned to about six inches tall, with watering reduced.

Poinsettias can go outside for the summer, but brought inside if temperatures are going to drop below 50 degrees. They are sensitive to cold.

The labor-intensive part comes for eight to 10 weeks beginning in late September or early October. That is when poinsettias must be in total darkness for 12 to 15 hours a day while they need bright light for at least six hours a day. That means if you don’t have a special greenhouse dedicated to poinsettias, you will have to put the plants into a box, closet or plastic bag every day around dinner time and take it out every day after breakfast. Many people, including me, won’t remember to do that. Which is why we buy new poinsettias every year.

If you are better than I am, bring the poinsettias out to a window in November and enjoy them for the new season.

Amaryllis is a gorgeous holiday plant, but if you want to grow it from a bulb and have it for Christmas, you are going to have to rush. It takes five to eight weeks from planting the bulb to get blossoms.

The bulbs should be put in heavy (usually clay or ceramic), 6- to 8-inch pots because the plants get so top-heavy. It also is good to have a bamboo stake to hold the plant upright. Place the pot in bright but indirect light and water sparingly until the plant produces a couple of inches of growth. Then water regularly and enjoy the wonderfully showy blossoms.

Getting the bulb to bloom a second year takes some work. After the flowers have gone by, cut the stalk back to about an inch from the bulb. Water and fertilize regularly. The plant will grow leaves over the summer. In August, stop watering and let the foliage die back as the pot gets completely dry.

The pot should then be put in a cool, dry and dark place – like a cellar bulkhead or unheated closet – for at least eight weeks. You then repeat the process.

So, select your plants, and give yourself a colorful late fall and winter.


TOM ATWELL is a freelance writer gardening in Cape Elizabeth. He can be contacted at: [email protected]

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