Larry Hodgson has published thousands of articles and 65 books over the course of his career, in both French and English. His son, Mathieu, has made it his mission to make his father’s writings available to the public. This article was originally published in the newspaper Le soleil on December 28, 2003.
There are two classes of people: those who are happy to receive a plant as a gift at Christmas and who even find it an interesting challenge… and those who panic when they receive a gift plant. When they unwrap a poinsettia, a holly or a Jerusalem cherry, the first ones are happy: they see in the small colorful plant an additional decorative element to complete the festive atmosphere. The latter, however, are already starting to panic when they realize that the plant is not made of plastic. “No! You’re not going to leave it here, are you? I’ll probably kill it!” But yes, we will leave it for you and no, it won’t die, at least not right away. For the latter. They will simply have to learn to control their floraphobia.
Let’s Define the Disease
Floraphobia: a feeling of panic and discouragement that follows the receipt of a gift plant and that makes the patient unable to provide it with adequate care. The patient often sees the basic care of a potted plant as an insurmountable challenge and believes that everyone will judge them negatively if they not succeed, which only increases the panic. He also tends to anthropomorphize the plant as a sentient being whose loss would be tantamount to murder.
Floraphobia is common, especially among people who have never tasted the pleasures of gardening. They have not learned to accept that a plant does not live forever and that, in nature, it’s a question of survival of the fittest: some survive to bloom again, others simply die. This is the attitude to develop to fight floraphobia.
What Is This Colorful Little Plant?
The first thing to remember is that no one will judge you if you fail. In fact, the plants sold during the holiday season rarely make good, long-lasting plants that can survive year after year and that must be maintained with great care. On the contrary, Christmas plants are, for the most part, ephemeral plants that will last only two or three weeks and then fade away, much like a bouquet of cut flowers, but a bouquet with roots, which allows them to survive a little longer. No one expects you to keep cut roses forever… and you shouldn’t have high expectations of Christmas plants either.
The most important thing to remember when receiving a plant as a gift is not to panic. A plant is not like a puppy or a kitten: it does not need care almost every moment. One or two interventions per week will suffice. So, when you receive the gift, unwrap the plant, yes, and if the soil is dry to the touch, pour half a cup of lukewarm water (and definitely not cold or boiling), but afterwards you can put it in a place where it will look good. No need to think about how much light it will need. For the holiday season, it will serve as a living decoration, that’s all.
Now that the holidays are over, it’s time to take another look at the plant. Is it still beautiful? If not, throw it out, without mercy or ulterior motives! There’s no need to throw a fit when a plant dies: as I said, many holiday plants have a useful life of a week or so. When the leaves have withered or fallen off, you dispose of them, period.
The following plants are ephemeral, they have been mass-produced in large greenhouses for the sole purpose of looking good for a week or two. Even an expert will have a hard time keeping them alive! Water them enough to moisten the whole root ball when their soil is dry to the touch, it is not worth putting them out in daylight or monitoring the temperature. They last as long as they last, then they go into the compost.
- Rieger begonia
- Jerusalem Cherry
- Paperwhite Narcissus
- Christmas Pepper
The Living Dead
Take a good look at your “bouquet”: does it have roots? (Pull a little on the stem to see.) If it doesn’t, it may be a real bouquet… of cut flowers. Remember that cut flowers are already dead, and will only last for a short time. Water them while they are beautiful and then throw them away!
Bonsais are also often already dead when purchased. This is surprising, because they’re quite expensive. But a bonsai isn’t able to survive inattention: here you have a plant that IS like a puppy or a kitten. Usually it is dead before it is sold to you, so there is no need to feel guilty if it continues to decline at home.
If your gift bonsai still has green leaves that do not crack when you bend them, it may still be alive. In this case, go to the section: “Daily care”.
The “Easy to Keep Alive”
The following plants are not too difficult to keep alive. They can be kept for several weeks or even years, first as flowering plants and then as green plants. And the plants marked with an asterisk (*) can even bloom again, at least eventually, without special care. However, I emphasize the word “can”: there is no guarantee, and you should not feel bad if you do not succeed in what is actually an achievement.
Provide these plants with “good light” (two or three hours of direct sunlight per day) and water them abundantly, until the excess water drains from the pot, as soon as their potting soil is touched (every 4 to 10 Days). A normal house temperature will do. As they can live for several years, they will also need nutrients from time to time. Apply a soluble fertilizer at each watering, at a quarter of the recommended dose, between March and September.
Even these plants are not eternal, however: when they look more dead than alive, throw them away.
The following plants should not be allowed to be sold without requiring that the buyer take a crash course in their care, as they are extremely demanding. Most of them do not last more than two weeks at home and few people can boast of having kept them alive for more than a year. So don’t be dismayed when they give up the ghost, because even the experts fail.
To try to keep them alive, try the following regimen: place them in front of a sunny window during the day and cool at night and monitor the condition of their soil daily. If it feels dry to the touch, soak the pot in warm water for five minutes, then let it drain. And repeat the check every day, dipping the pot again if necessary. Fertilize weekly, at a low dose (1/4 of the recommended dose), between March and September.
There you go! Do you feel a little more reassured? Once you accept that a potted plant is not necessarily forever and that plants sold during the holiday season, especially, are a challenge even for experts, it’ll be easier for you to accept them for what they are: temporary decorative elements that will probably end up in the garbage sooner or later. So take a deep breath, relax and learn to appreciate them while they last. This way your floraphobia will dissipate and give way to… the beginning of “greenthumbitis”.
Glad to read this about the bonsai and orchids! The bonsai I want to buy (now I know what to look for—a living one!) and the orchid our neighbors gave us a few months ago, which I have kept green by only watering it per directions on tag that came with it (3 ice cubes a week).
Merry Christmas to you ALL!
My sincere thanks to Laidback Gardener for all the articles and interesting tips for folks like me who are not experts in taking care of plants indoors and outdoors but love plants.