Garden Q&A: Rescue poinsettias and paperwhite narcissus after the holidays

·6 min read
Poinsettias can take bright sun and heat, but not freezing temperatures. Since Northeast Florida doesn’t see many prolonged freezes and gets its share of sun and heat, they can be right at home in your garden.
Poinsettias can take bright sun and heat, but not freezing temperatures. Since Northeast Florida doesn’t see many prolonged freezes and gets its share of sun and heat, they can be right at home in your garden.

On my morning walks, my attention is firmly on a curious, very active 17-month-old Brittany that’s always trying to get into mischief. One recent morning, in spite of the pup’s shenanigans, I couldn’t help but notice what was going on in my neighbors’ yards.

There was a pile of worse for wear poinsettias, three once lush Christmas trees, an oversized wreath, now brown and bowless, still in its pride of place on a front gate, some paper white narcissus bulbs that were past their sale-by date and one yard still festooned with colored lights in the shrubs.

I plan to rescue a few of those prizes for my yard. It appears some of my neighbors don’t know what to do with these holiday treasures after the parties are over. We can fix that, starting with the poinsettias.

Poinsettias (Euphorbia pulcherrima) are native to Mexico and Central America. They can take bright sun and heat, but not freezing temperatures. Since Northeast Florida doesn’t see many prolonged freezes and gets its share of sun and heat, they can be right at home in your garden.

It’s best to wait until after the average date of the last frost, Feb. 17 (think, “Valentine’s Day”) to plant it outdoors. While you’re waiting, find a sunny spot in your yard that will not receive any artificial light at night. Poinsettias need a period of darkness to trigger flowering. Light from any source after Oct. 1, will delay flower development. Assuming that your plant is still healthy in mid-February, cut off the fading bracts (the colorful and showy flowery leaf-like structures) leaving 4-6 inches of the stem on each branch and as many green leaves as possible. Place the plant in moist, well-draining soil. Keep it mulched and well-watered until it’s established and fertilize monthly from May to September in Northeast Florida.

There you go! One plant saved.

For more detailed planting and care instructions, look to UF’s publication, Poinsettias at a Glance (

Now, as for those paperwhite narcissus bulbs (Narcissus jonquilla): Save or to scrap?

“Forcing” is a process “to make a plant flower at a predetermined time or under artificially imposed conditions.” Paperwhites are easy to force and make a beautiful and fragrant display indoors.

But forcing uses up all a plant’s energy that was stored in the bulb. Those bulbs won’t be forced again. If your forced bulbs are through flowering and appear to be healthy, consider finding a home for them in your garden. It may take a couple of years for your work to be rewarded, but you may find it worth your time.

Your first step is to replenish nutrients the plant used up making this year’s blossoms. Replace the water in the container in which it had been growing with a water-soluble fertilizer at the rate of one-quarter to one-half strength. You may be able to provide enough nutrients for the plant to store in the bulb for next year.

When the flowers have faded but the leaves appear green and healthy, pot the bulbs in a mix of equal parts peat moss, perlite and potting soil. Avoid damaging the roots. Place the pot back in the sun and keep the soil evenly moist. The foliage will use the sunlight to manufacture and store food for next year. When the foliage yellows and dies back, trim it off.

In Northeast Florida, we plant narcissus from September through December. This is the time to knock these new plants out of their pot and plant them. Once established they are a reliable re-blooming plant and should last for years.

If your goal is to have a beautiful display next holiday season, buy fresh bulbs in the fall. Paperwhites need four to seven weeks to bloom, so plan accordingly.

For more information on paperwhites and how to force them, go to UF’s publication, “Paperwhite Narcissus” (,

That’s the second compost-contender saved.

The one holiday plant I didn’t see on my walk was the Christmas cactus. Truthfully, I didn’t expect to. Christmas cactuses are popular, in part, because they’re reputed to be easy to care for and will grow for years. “Easy” for some people who post pictures of their glorious plants on social media intent only on making me feel inadequate. I’ve killed many Christmas cactuses. To improve my success rate, I’ve looked at how it grows in nature for clues.

Christmas cactus (Schlumbergera bridgesii) is a hybrid epiphytic cactus from Brazil’s tropical rainforests. It lives in the treetops and branch hollows, in mosses and decayed leaves and subsists on the nutrients and moisture found there.

That explains my first problem … proper watering. The Christmas cactus isn’t quite as drought tolerant as the name implies, even though, as a succulent, it stores water in the leaves. Its native jungle home is warm, but not searing hot (ideally, the plant wants daytime temperatures between 60-70 degrees), with bright, sunny light but not direct sun, in a well-draining potting medium (they like tight-fitting pots, but if you must pot it up use a succulent potting mix), and a consistently moist, humid environment, but not standing in water.

None of this describes the interior of my air-conditioned home. But it does point out things I’ve been doing wrong.

Christmas cactus, like poinsettias, need a period of uninterrupted darkness to trigger blooming. Place your plant in dark area for about 15 hours a day for 20-25 days straight to stimulate flower development.

Another factor I’ve not considered is nighttime temperature. At night temperature should be between 55 and 68 degrees. Above or below that range will prevent flower production.

Also good to know … pruning your Christmas cactus after blooming will encourage the plant to branch out. Don't prune beyond mid-summer. Pinch off two or three sections of each branch. Place the sections in moist vermiculite to propagate new plants.

Getting your Christmas cactus to bloom in time for the next year’s holidays is thoroughly covered in UFs publication, “Christmas Cactus Prep” (

So, before you take your holiday treasures to the compost bin, consider that today you now have tools to save at least two of them and maybe improve your chances with a third. Consider it a gift to start the new year and expand your garden.

Paula Weatherby is a Master Gardener Volunteer with the Duval County Extension Service and the University of Florida/IFAS. For gardening questions, call the Duval County Extension Office at (904) 255-7450 from 9 a.m. to noon and 12:30 to 3:30 p.m. Monday-Friday and ask for a Master Gardener Volunteer.

This article originally appeared on Florida Times-Union: Garden Q&A: Rescue poinsettias, paperwhite narcissus after the holidays

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