Christmas Plants Around the World

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Christmas plants differ according to region. Source; laidbackgardener.blog

The most popular Christmas plant in North America is certainly the poinsettia (Euphorbia pulcherrima). There is scarcely a store that doesn’t sell them or a home that isn’t decorated with one. But there are other Christmas plants, including Christmas cactus (Schlumbergera spp.), Christmas kalanchoe (Kalanchoe blossfeldiana), amaryllis (Hippeastrum spp.), Christmas pepper (Capsicum annuum), Jerusalem cherry (Solanum pseudocapsicum), frosted fern (Selaginella martensii ‘Frosty’), Norfolk island pine (Araucaria heterophylla) and, more recently, wintergreen (Gaultheria procumbens).

Christmas trees are popular all over North America, too. Fir trees (Abies spp.) are the biggest sellers, but Douglas firs (Pseudotsuga menziesii), spruces (Picea spp.) and pines (Pinus spp.) are widely used.

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Christmas fern (Polystichum acrostichoides). Source: Krzysztof Ziarnek, Kenraiz

The Christmas fern (Polystichum acrostichoides) was once commonly used in Christmas wreathes, garlands and centerpieces in Eastern North America, as it has evergreen fronds that last all winter and are thus available at Christmastime, but its star has waned considerably. It’s just too easy to find longer-lasting artificial or preserved foliage for such use these days. The Christmas fern still makes a great garden plant for shady spots and is hardy to zone 3.

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Winterberry (Ilex verticillata Berry Poppins®). Source: Proven Winners

The branches of winterberry (Ilex verticillata) have fared better over time and are still widely used. This deciduous holly, native to eastern North America, is leafless at Christmas, but its branches are covered with bright red berries that create great swaths of color in Christmas arrangements. You can grow them yourself (the shrub is hardy to zone 3 and you will need to include at least one male plant in your planting to pollinate the berry-bearing females), but you can also buy branches in florist shops … including fake ones, unfortunately.

That covers most of the plants associated with Christmas in North America, but Christmas plants differ around the world. Let’s take a look at what’s going on elsewhere.

Europe

In general, the plants featured in the first paragraph—poinsettias, Christmas cactus, Christmas kalanchoe, etc.—are also popular in Europe, although the poinsettia, even though it is not rare per se, is not as popular as on this side of the Atlantic. But there are other plants associated with Christmas (and New Year’s Day) that are more specific to Europe.

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Holly (Ilex aquifolium): more popular in Europe than in North America. Source: AnemoneProjectors, Wikiimedia Commons

For example, holly (Ilex aquifolium) is a European shrub or tree with spiny-edged, shiny, leathery, evergreen leaves and red berries and is grown in many Old World gardens. True enough, holly is available on a limited basis in North America too (although are mostly seem either on Christmas cards or as sprigs of plastic leaves), but nothing to the extent to which it is used in Europe, where, in some countries, sprigs of holly are found on nearly every window ledge and doorway. This tradition has come to be seen as a sign of welcome, but is in fact based a centuries-old belief that putting holly on all possible entranceways would prevent evil spirits from invading the home.

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Mistletoe is no longer as common as it once was. Source: mistletoematters.wordpress.com

Kissing under the mistletoe during the Christmas season is a very old European tradition and can be traced back to the time of the Druids, who laid down arms and exchanged greetings under the mistletoe, considered to be a very sacred plant. Mistletoe is a parasitic plant that grows on tree branches, counting on sap it absorbs from its host for its survival. European mistletoe (Viscum album)—with its translucent round white berries—is the original variety to kiss under.

The tradition of kissing under the mistletoe was brought over to the New World and thrived for awhile, but now appears to be dying out. Certainly mistletoe is now only available very locally in North America: I haven’t seen a sprig of it in years! It’s still widely used in Europe during the holiday season.

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English ivy (Hedera helix) used in a wreath. Source: bcinvasives.ca

English ivy (Hedera helix) is a traditional Christmas plant in Europe, widely used in holiday garlands and wreaths. Think of the carol The Holly and the Ivy, for example. And why not, since this evergreen climber grows abundantly everywhere on that continent and so is readily available! The tradition of using ivy as a Christmas decoration never caught on in North America, probably because ivy is neither native nor widely grown, though it has escaped from culture to become abundant in a few areas. Harvesting ivy for Christmas decorations is something that could be encouraged as a control measure in areas (mostly on the US West Coast) where ivy is proving to be a pernicious weed.

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The Christmas rose (Helleborus niger) is a stunning early bloomer… but only blooms at Christmas in mild climates. Source: 4028mdk09, Wikimedia Commons

The Christmas rose (Helleborus niger) is not a rose (Rosa spp.) at all, of course, but a perennial. It’s a traditional Christmas plant in southeastern Europe, notably in areas where Orthodox Church is the common religion. Orthodox Christmas takes place about two weeks later than in Western rites, around January 7. And this very early perennial is usually in bloom by then. Although mainly used in flower beds or naturalized in woodlands, it’s also sold as a gift plant at that season.

Elsewhere in Europe and pretty much everywhere in North America, this plant flowers too late to be a Christmas plant. Where I live, it isn’t even in bloom at Easter … it’s more like a Mother’s Day plant!

In Europe, the tradition of Christmas trees is well established and often spruce or pine, or even a juniper or other conifer, are used, depending on what is available locally.

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The Yule log tradition has trouble surviving in modern homes, as so many no longer have a functioning fireplace. Source: maeclair.net

The tradition of the Yule log has largely died out in Britain and Central Europe as it has in North America, but in many parts of Europe, notably in Scandanavia and Eastern Europe, it remains deeply entrenched. A Yule log is a very large hardwood log, the idea being to light it on Christmas Eve and have it burn through the night and Christmas Day. In the Balkans, the Yule log is called a badnjak (or budnik, according to the local language) and it is usually an oak, a symbol of longevity. Those who do not have a fireplace to burn a log in often decorate their apartment with twigs of oak.

In France, Belgium and Switzerland, the Yule log (bûche de Noël) has morphed into a log-shaped cake, traditionally served at Christmas … you don’t need a fireplace for that!

Mediterranean and Middle East

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A wreath decorated with pomegranates (Punica granatum). Source: www.clubbotanic.com

The main Christmas plant in this region is the pomegranate (Punica granatum): a perfect choice, as it matures at just the right time of year. Doors, fireplaces, tables, etc. are decorated with pomegranate fruits, both fresh and artificial.

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Butcher’s broom (Ruscus aculeatus). Source: Dominicus Johannes Bergsma, Wikimedia Commons

Two other plants often used in Christmas decorations are the shrubs butcher’s broom (Ruscus aculeatus) and firethorn (Pyracantha spp.), both bearing evergreen foliage and red berries.

In Israel, olive branches (Olea europaea) are offered at Christmas to friends as a symbol of peace.

Mexico

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Flower market full of poinsettias (Euphorbia pulcherrima) in Mexico just before Christmas. Source: casita-colibri.blog

The poinsettia (Euphorbia pulcherrima) is native to Mexico and is popular in there, where it’s known as flor de Nochebuena (Christmas Eve flower). Butcher’s broom and firethorn, brought over from Spain, are also popular, as well as are several local plants that bloom at Christmas.

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Traditional Mexican Christmas punch with floating manzanitas (Crataegus mexicana). Source: http://www.goya.com

Manzanita, also called tejocote or manzanilla (Crataegus mexicana), a large-berried hawthorn, is another plant traditionally used as a Christmas decoration in many parts of Mexico and Central America. The orange fruits may be threaded onto a garland and are also used to make Christmas punch.

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Display of radishes on the Noche de Los Rábanos. Source: AlejandroLinaresGarcia, Wikimedia Commons

One of Mexico’s most curious Christmas traditions, however, is the Night of the Radishes (Noche de Los Rábanos), celebrated in the region of Oaxaca on December 23rd. In it, radishes are carved and arranged into some very impressive displays.

South America

Since most of this continent lies south of the equator, the seasons are inverted and Christmas takes place in summer, not winter. That means traditional Christmas plants of the Northern Hemisphere bloom six months too late for Christmas. As a result, the poinsettia is called “Easter flower” (flor de pascua) in many South American countries, because it blooms at Easter, while our Christmas cactus (Schlumbergera) is called “flor de maio” (May flower) in its country of origin, Brazil. Yet there is a Christmas cactus in these countries. The plant we call Easter cactus (Hatiora gaertneri, formerly Rhipsalidopsis gaertneri) in the North is the “cactus de Navidad” and blooms at Christmas in much of South America.

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Colored berries of the Brazilian peppertree (Schinus terebinthifolius). Source: Javier Alejandro, flickr.

South Americans tend to use native plants as cut flowers or holiday plants at the Christmas season. Branches of the Brazilian peppertree (Schinus terebinthifolius) and its cousin, Peruvian peppertree (S. mollis), known in the north for the pink peppercorns they produce, are often used to decorate churches and houses during the holiday season, as they are loaded with small red berries at that time of year.

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Venezuelan Christmas orchid (Cattleya percivaliana). Source: QuazDelaCruz, Wikimedia Commons

Venezuela has its own Christmas orchid that blooms for the holidays: Cattleya perciviliana. Elsewhere in South America, the usual “orquídea de navidad” is Angraecum sesquipedale, actually native to Madagascar, but widely grown for its large white star-shaped flowers. It’s also called estrella of Belén (star of Bethlehem), but then, so are many other white, star-shaped flowers, including bulbs of the genus Ornithogalum.

In Paraguay, house and Christmas displays are often decorated with “flores de coco,” the long, fragrant inflorescences of a local palm tree, the coyol (Acrocomia aculeata). This pre-Christian tradition comes from the indigenous Guarani people.

Asia

In general, the concept of Christmas is relatively new to this continent and the celebration is mostly a commercial one of American inspiration, so there are often no traditional plants associated with the holiday, at least not long-standing ones. Most are the same Christmas plants seen in North America (poinsettias, Christmas cacti, etc.). Christmas trees, almost nonexistent only 30 years ago, for example, are now seen everywhere, although more often in shopping centers than in private homes. Usually artificial trees are used.

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Heavenly bamboo (Nandina domestica). Source: http://www.mailordertrees.co.uk

The Christian population in Japan is more firmly established than most in Asia and has solidly adopted the tradition of the Christmas tree, usually a real fir or spruce tree. Heavenly bamboo, Nandina domestica, which is not a bamboo at all, but a shrub, is the second-best-known Christmas plant, with its scarlet fruits and red winter leaves. Chrysanthemums (Chrysanthemum morifolium), popular in all seasons in Japan, are widely used at Christmas too.

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Apples stamped with seasonal messages are common Christmas Eve gifts in China. Source: gbtimes.com

In China, an apple wrapped in colored paper or stamped with an appropriate seasonal message is often offered as a gift on Christmas Eve because the word “Christmas Eve,” translated as “night of peace” (Ping’an Ye) in Mandarin, sounds like the word apple (píngguǒ).

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Christmas palm (Adonidia merrillii). Source: palmpedia.ne

In the tropical regions of Asia, the Christmas palm (Adonidia merrillii), better known by its old name, Veitchia merrillii, is widely grown. With its stocky trunk and relatively short fronds, it looks like a dwarf royal palm … and bears bright red fruit at Christmas. Originally from the Philippines and Malaysia, this palm is now grown throughout the tropics.

Finally, in India, the golden Monterey cypress (Cupressus macrocarpa ‘Goldcrest’) is growing in popularity as a Christmas tree, but otherwise, Christmas is little celebrated in India.

Africa

The traditions of using Christmas plants are more firmly established in South Africa than in the center and north of the continent, brought to this region by European settlers (notably the Dutch and English).

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To Northeners, hortensias (Hydrangea macrophylla) just don’t say Christmas, but it warms the cockles of the heart of South Africans. Source: pxhere

Again, though, with the seasons being inverted, the South African Christmas plants are very different from those in the Northern Hemisphere. Notably, the hortensia (Hydrangea macrophylla), well-known in the North for its summer bloom, is called “Christmas flower” and is by far the most popular Christmas plant!

On the other hand, poinsettias are catching on as well. They have to be specially prepared in order to bloom at Christmas rather than in May, which is when they’d bloom if left on their own. Local nurserymen manage to do this by covering their production greenhouses with black cloth after 4 pm to ensure the short days necessary to stimulate bloom.

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Christmas bells (Sandersonia aurantiaca) are bulbs native to South Africa. Source: http://www.alanjolliffe.com

Various native plants also serve as Christmas plants, such as Christmas bush (Pavetta spp.), Christmas bells (Sandersonia aurantiaca) and Christmas berry (Chironia baccifera). Several plants imported from Australia, which has a similar climate, are also appreciated for their winter bloom. You’ll read more about those below. Africans also celebrate Christmas with many plants that are for us just typical summer flowers, like daisies, roses and zinnias.

Christmas trees are very popular in South Africa, but they use as subjects conifers adapted to local conditions, such as cypress (Cupressus spp., including C. macrocarpa), Japanese cedar (Cryptomeria japonica) and various pines (Pinus spp., including P. radiata).

Australia

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The Norfolk Island pine (Araucaria heterophylla) is Australia’s favorite Christmas tree, AlfredSin, flickr

In Australia, the traditional Christmas tree is the native Norfolk Island pine (Araucaria heterophylla). Grown in mostly as a houseplant in the northern hemisphere, where it rarely exceeds 5 feet (1.5 m) in height, in Australia, it can eventually reach up to 250 feet (65 m) in height, about 20 floors! Other mild-climate conifers from various parts of the world are also used as Christmas trees, including various pines.

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The Australian Christmas tree (Nuytsia floribunda). Source:  JarrahTree, Wikimedia Commons

And Australians have their own Ozzie Christmas tree, Nuytsia floribunda … but it’s not a conifer, but rather a broad-leaved tree. Moreover, it’s a parasitic tree (or rather hemiparasitic tree, since it does carry out its own photosynthesis) that steals most of its water and minerals from nearby plants! The Australian Christmas tree produces frothy spikes of orange-yellow flowers just in time for the holidays.

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One of many Christmas bushes in Australia: Ceratopetalum gummiferum. Source: gdaymateowyagoin, flickr

To add to this, each Australian state seems to have its own “Christmas bush,” always a shrub that produces masses of either flowers or colorful fruits at the right season, including Correa spp., Chromolaena odorata, Ceratopetalum gummiferum and Prosanthera laisanthos. Also, there are many bulbs that bloom at Christmas, including various species of Blandfordia, called “Christmas bells.” And Australia also has its own Christmas orchid: Calanthe triplicata, native to the north of the country

New Zealand

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New Zealand Christmas tree (Meterosideros excelsa). Source: Ed323, Wikimedia Commons

Mention Christmas tree to any New Zealander and they’ll immediately think of Meterosideros excelsa, a rounded broadleaf tree with feathery red flowers at Christmas. It’s called the New Zealand Christmas tree or pōhutukawa. And an introduced bulb from South America (Alstroemeria psittacina), with green-tipped red tubular flowers, has “gone native” and is well-known by locals as New Zealand Christmas bells.


So, wherever you travel around the world, there are always interesting Christmas plants to discover!

If you know of other Christmas plants, do not hesitate to let me know about them at laidbackgardener@gmail.com.20171224A HC.jpg

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Double the Fun with Calandiva Kalanchoes

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Kalanchoe-blossfeldiana

The traditional Christmas kalanchoe always came with red flowers.

The Christmas kalanchoe or flaming Katy (Kalanchoe blossfeldiana) is a traditional Christmas plant, in culture for over 100 years. It is a succulent native to Madagascar bearing fleshy leaves with a waxy sheen and serrated margins. The leaves are dark green, sometimes with a red border when the plant receives full sun. However, its most striking feature is its bloom: each plant bursts into a dense mass of bright red flowers with four fleshy petals at the beginning of winter. And the flowers last a long time, usually at least six weeks. The Christmas kalanchoe is one of those plants that really does adapt well to the growing conditions in the average home and thus makes an excellent houseplant.

For generations though, the Christmas kalanchoe was offered in exactly one color, bright red. Then in the 1980s, Dutch hybridizers began to introduce other colors: orange, pink, purple, white, etc. and these are now certainly as common in garden centers as the original red.

Another fairly recent innovation is that growers learned to extend the selling season throughout the entire year. Thus, suppliers are dropping the old name, Christmas kalanchoe in favor of calling it “decorative Kalanchoe”, since you have as much chance of finding one in spring, summer or fall as at Christmas.

A Diva is Born!

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Mutant with 32 petals.

Throughout the first 100 years of kalanchoe culture, all kalanchoes had four-petaled flowers. Then in 1998, a Swedish retailer of kalanchoes reported to his supplier that he had found a curious specimen in a lot of plants of ‘Bromo’, a cultivar with purple flowers. Instead of the normal four petals, this mutation had 32 petals, forming a small rose. The flower was not just double: you could almost call it octuple!

 

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Calandiva ‘Leonardo’

This mutation was launched as a cultivar under the name ‘Leonardo’ and was at the origin of a major hybridizing program, leading in 2002 to the launching of a new series of fully double kalanchoes, Calandiva®. Six cultivars were introduced the first year, but others followed and now the series includes 50 cultivars in different shades of red, pink, orange, purple and white, although only 25 are still listed in the catalog of the Dutch supplier. Calandivas took the indoor gardening world by storm and are are now the best selling kalanchoes in the world.

A second series with larger flowers just been launched, Grandiva®. There are currently only five cultivars Grandiva, but other cultivars are sure to follow.

Making Their Bloom Last

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Calandivas come in a wide range of colors.

Calandiva kalanchoes are available all year round, not just at Christmas. When you buy them, they are compact plants forming a dense rosette whose center is entirely hidden by flowers. The flowers are not only gorgeous, but they remain in bloom 6 weeks or more… and the plant only requires minimal care.

That’s because Christmas kalanchoes are succulents, accustomed to tough conditions. You don’t need much in the way of growing experience to keep them alive. In fact, all you really need to know about keeping them blooming is to water them thoroughly, but only when the soil is dry to the touch. Otherwise, for those 6 or so weeks when they bloom, you can put them anywhere, from full sun to almost total shade and give them any temperature from 60 to 80˚F (16-27˚C).

After they stop blooming, just toss them in the compost… or at least that’s what suppliers hope you’ll do. Wouldn’t it be tragic if people began to keep their Calandiva kalanchoes from one year to the next rather than buying new ones?

Making Calandivas Bloom Again

If you want to break out of the box and get your Calandiva Kalanchoe to rebloom, here’s what to do. Do note thought that If you can do almost anything with a Calandiva while it is in bloom, if you want it to flower again, you’ll have to start giving it much more appropriate conditions.

Start by cutting off its faded flowers, then place it in front of a brightly lit window, the closer to full sun the better. Keep watering it thoroughly, then letting it dry out almost completely before watering again. Also, add a pinch of fertilizer from time to time. If your plant starts to stretch (a sign it’s not getting enough light, by the way), don’t hesitate to cut it back to stimulate more compact growth.

During the summer, you can even acclimate your plant to outdoor conditions and grow it there in full sun as long as you remember to bring it back indoors again before the nights begin to cool, at the end of August or in early September in most areas of the Northern Hemisphere.

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Calandiva ‘Cadillac Pink’

The most important step in getting your plant to bloom in time for Christmas has to be put into effect in late September. Stop pruning and fertilizing it and, even more importantly, place the plant in a room that is dark at night but where it will get full sun during the day. No extraneous evening light must reach it at night for the next few weeks, because it’s a short day plant: days of less than 12 hours are absolutely necessary to get the plant to bloom. In the Northern Hemisphere, days will naturally be shorter than 12 hours from September 22 on.

Note that the average living room or kitchen might not be appropriate: if you turn on lights in the room at night, this will stop the plant from blooming. Instead, put the plant in a room you don’t illuminate at night (a guest room, for example) or install a cardboard barrier between the sunny windowsill and the lighted room beyond.

Under this regime of short days, long nights and regular watering, the plant will start to bloom all on its own come November or December. And you can repeat this treatment every year.

For readers who live in zones 9 and up, Calandiva kalanchoes can also be grown outdoors in well-drained soil and will bloom naturally… as long as you live at least a bit north or south of the Equator. That’s because days need to be at least a little less than 12 hours long for the plant to rebloom and they are exactly 12 hours long all year long on the Equator.

Getting Your Calandiva to Flower at Any Season

But if Calandivas naturally bloom around Christmas, how is it that you see them on sale, in full bloom, all year long, even in summer when days are very long? That’s because the grower “forced” them by giving them short days. That’s simple enough to do in a greenhouse: simply pull a black cloth over plants for 14 hours at night and give it full sun during the day. You can do pretty much the same thing in the average home.

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Calandiva ‘Theron’

About 3 months before you want your Calandiva to bloom, place the plant under a 2- or 4-tube fluorescent lamp (4 tubes, is better). Add a timer and set it so the plant gets 10 hours of light per day. It must receive no outside light beyond the 10 hours required, so it would be wise to place the lamp in a closet or to surround it with black cloth. When you see flower buds appear, which takes about 4-6 weeks, you can put the plant back near a window and give it natural lighting again. That’s because once the buds are initiated, short days are no longer required and it will bloom without any special care. You can even get the same plant to bloom twice a year by repeating short days after it has started to put on new growth.

Just Ignore the Label

You’ll often see a note on Calandiva kalanchoe labels that says multiplying the plant is illegal. This is what the supplier wants you to believe, but in fact, this ban on multiplication only applies to professionals who want to reproduce it for resale. If you want to, you can take as many cuttings of Calandiva kalanchoes as you want… as long as you don’t sell the extras at the flea market!

Good luck with this new houseplant diva! You’ll soon discover she is no prima donna, but a most compliant soloist who’ll give an outstanding performance year after year!

Laidback Gardener Tip of the Day

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Christmas Kalanchoe

(Kalanchoe blossfeldiana)

31 décembreLike most Christmas plants, Christmas kalanchoe blooms under the influence of short days. That is why it is at its most beautiful during the holiday season: the days are the shortest of the year. It is a succulent and therefore has fleshy stems and leaves that store water to counter possible shortages. So water this plant unless others: it really loves to dry out a bit between waterings. Full sun is also required.

The kalanchoe can remain in bloom for months and will subsequently turn into an attractive foliage plant. If you want to see it bloom again next Christmas, though, you’ll have to offer it short days by placing it, in September, in a room that receives no artificial illumination at night.

Once available only at Christmas, this kalanchoe is now found in garden centers and nurseries year round. That’s because growers have found that they can get it to bloom when they want by artificially manipulating the number of hours of light the plant receives. If you want your plant to bloom off season, put it in an otherwise dark room (perhaps a closet) and offer it 10 hours of intense artificial light a day. It will be in bloom within 2 months.