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Yule flowers brighten the holiday season

By Bodie V. Pennisi
University of Georgia

As the winter holidays near, the first flower that comes to mind is probably the poinsettia. Against a backdrop of evergreens, its bold, red foliage creates a dramatic, living decoration.

Available in many colors now, poinsettias' popularity is well-deserved. But other deserving flowering plants will nicely complement your holiday decorations, too.

All of these plants will add living color to your holiday decoration and help you enjoy the yule-flower spirit throughout the season:

Christmas cactus (Schlumbergera -- Zygocactus -- species) is an old-time favorite that gets its name from its dependable holiday flowering.

A succulent perennial from the tropics, Christmas cactus is an epiphyte, which means it lives on other plants. Unlike a parasitic plant, which gets nutrients from its host, epiphytes use their host simply as substrate, a place to live. And unlike many cacti, this one has no spines.

Christmas cactus is one of the most widely cultivated and enjoyed groups of cacti in the world. They have been extensively hybridized to produce many colors of flowers, including magenta, white, pink, salmon and orange. Keep plants in bright light and on the dry side.

Christmas peppers (Capsicum annuum) are cultivars of our garden peppers that have been selected for fruit color and form. The fruits, which are often quite hot to the taste, can be globe- or cone-shaped and range from yellow, orange and red to green and purple.

Buy plants with good fruit color, as good color won't develop in the low light of home environments. Since this is a true annual, discard the plants when the fruit fades.

African violets (Saintpaulia ionantha) are rosette-forming perennials with oval, medium to dark green leaves that are covered with hairs. The leaves may be ruffled, scalloped, quilted or even variegated. The flowers are produced year-round in blue, lavender, pink, red, white and bi-colors. Miniature varieties also are available.

African violets grow best with bright (but not direct) light, constant conditions and high humidity.

Gloxinias (Sinningia speciosa), close relatives of African violets, are tuber-forming perennials with rosettes of oval to oblong, scalloped, dark green leaves that are covered with velvety hairs.

They produce single or clustered, trumpet-shaped red, violet-blue, pink, white or bi-colored flowers. A 6-inch gloxinia will have a dozen or more buds and will continue to flower for three to four weeks, if properly cared for.

Treat gloxinias as African violets: Avoid high-intensity, direct sunlight. Water them from the saucer with warm water (at least 70 degrees Fahrenheit). Keep them on the moist side but not waterlogged. And avoid cold or hot drafts.

Reiger begonias (Begonia hiemalis) look very similar to the garden tuberous and "Nonstop" begonias. The leaves are somewhat glossy and can break easy. Both single and double flowers may be found on the same plant.

Riegers are relatively tolerant of sun exposure and temperature and prefer a slightly moist medium. A high-quality plant will be at least half-covered by flowers.

Kalanchoe (genus Kalanchoe) is perhaps the most durable of the red-flowering potted plants you can find in the holiday season. It has a fleshy stem and toothed or scalloped, fleshy leaves.

Kalanchoe will be happy when warm and dry. However, drought stress will shorten the flower life.

Blushing bromeliad (Neoregelia carolinae) is an epiphytic bromeliad with an open rosette of strap-shaped, toothed, mid-green or variegated leaves. The inner leaves are purplish to red, and the flowers are violet or lavender.

Bromeliads like bright light and warmth. Be careful to not overwater the soil, but keep the central vase formed by the leaves filled with rainwater or distilled water. Feed them by spraying the leaves with a dilute fertilizer solution.

(Bodie Pennisi is a Cooperative Extension horticulturist with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.)

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