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Christmas decor: Brighten your rooms with flowering plants

Author: Canadian Living

Home & Garden

Christmas decor: Brighten your rooms with flowering plants

After a Christmas tree, the most popular plant of the season in most homes must be a potted poinsettia – and these gorgeous plants have a colourful history, rich in folklore, fable and fact.

The facts:
• Poinsettia has always been valued for "blooming" (actually, it's the petal-like leaves – called bracts – that turn colour) during the shortest days of the year.
• "Cuetlaxochitl" was what the ancient Aztecs called this native of Mexico. From its red leaves they extracted a purple-red dye and used the milky sap from the stems as a treatment for fever.
• The name "poinsettia" is derived from the name of the man who popularized the
plant in North America – Joel R. Poinsett, the first American ambassador to Mexico in the late 1820s.
• A large shrub in the tropics, the poinsettia has become the favourite potted flowering plant in the United States. The compact hybrids range from burgundy through red, orange, coral, pink and white to pale green.

The folklore:
One traditional Mexican Christmas story goes like this: Wanting to bring a gift to her village festival to honour Baby Jesus, a poor peasant girl shed many tears because she had nothing to give. Instead, she gathered weeds by the roadside as she walked to church for mass on Christmas Eve. Miraculously, her humble offering transformed into a bouquet of beautiful red flowers and were known as flores de noche buena (flowers of the holy night) ever after.

The fable:
You'll still hear that poinsettias are poisonious, but actually they're not. A 1971 study at Ohio State University proved that all parts of the plant are nontoxic. After eating several poinsettia leaves on TV to prove this point, however, I can tell you that they are extremely fibrous. They will cause stomachaches in pets and small children, so keep the plants out of their reach.
My favourite festive plants (after poinsettias)
1. Azalea Red, pink, white or bicolour: the beautiful double blooms will last if you keep the soil moist and the pot in a room with indirect light and an average temperature of 20 C (68 F).

2.  Cyclamen: Place this plant in a cool room (15 to 20 C/59 to 68 F) with indirect light to encourage orchid-like flowers that range from white through red, magenta and purple. In ideal conditions, cyclamen may bloom for more than two months.

3. Norfolk Island Pine:
No room for a Christmas tree? No problem! This tropical plant is the perfect stand-in, but the stems are too weak for heavy ornaments. Give it bright light and keep it moist (a humidifier helps).

4. Christmas Cactus: This easy-care plant easily outlives the average cat (some people have had the same Christmas cactus for more than 50 years). Set it in bright, indirect sunlight. Let it dry out before watering. In mid-September move it to a cool spot that's dark all night, stop fertilizing and reduce watering (but don't let it wilt). When buds form, fertilize and give it more light and water.

5. Amaryllis: My absolute favourite. Just when you need it most, an amaryllis bursts forth into huge, tropical, lily-like flowers in dramatic shades of red, salmon, pink and white, in solid, striped and speckled versions. Leave the top third of the bulb above the soil, water when it's dry and keep it in a bright setting. Tip: To make flowers last, set it in a cool place.

Worried about what sort of effect winter will have on your garden? Learn about the best ways to winter-proof your yard.

This story was originally titled "Poinsettia Facts and Fables" in the December 2007 issue.

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Christmas decor: Brighten your rooms with flowering plants

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