Sunday, November 24, 2013

Counterpoin(settia): Break Out of the Poinsettia Rut for Holiday Florals

WSJ, Nov. 22, 2013

When the holidays sneak up on you, with all their attendant stress, it's tempting to take the easy way out. Ordering gift cards for everyone. Grabbing a quart of supermarket eggnog. Buying a few no-brainer poinsettias in their blandly cheery foil and plopping them in the usual spots. But the nagging sense that you didn't muster much originality can just add to your anxiety. So I try to resist the path of least resistance, at least when it comes to living things. It doesn't take much extra effort to overcome predictability, and it leaves me feeling strangely peaceful.

To be clear, I have nothing against poinsettias, the humble genus native to Mexico. As with most botanical clichĂ©s, it's not so much the plant that's tired as how people use them. My primary advice: Get rid of the foil and pop the plastic container into another vessel. It could be an urn you bring in from the garden, a silver ice bucket or a Chinese decorative pot. I like clustering a group of mini poinsettias—one of the happy consequences of extensive breeding—on a table in Ben Wolff's Milton Pots or Footed Herb Pots ( ). For a more organic approach, try wrapping the plastic pot in burlap. And don't assume that supermarket poinsettias are the only options: It's possible to find the plant at garden centers in unusual colors like apricot, salmon or variegated pink and cream.

But the poinsettia isn't the only plant that looks good this time of year and evokes a sense of the holidays. When searching out alternatives, I focus on flowers that are currently at their peak—e.g., those of tropical origin—and somehow seasonal in hue. I tend to stick to white and shades of pink and red. In the depths of winter, scent is a bonus. After all, a seasonal tableau is about bringing nature indoors, despite the odds.
One of my favorites is the florist cyclamen (3, 9)—which often shows up in Home Depots, garden centers and florists soon after Thanksgiving—a softer, shyer alternative to the in-your-face poinsettia. Their butterfly-like flowers are either quite petite or larger (up to 1.5 inches) and range in color from snowy white to soft pink to deep crimson. Their sweet, intricately marked heart-shaped leaves add to their appeal. Water cyclamens carefully. Too much and they wilt; too little and they dry up—so wait until the soil is dry to the touch and make sure it's draining well.

Then there are the easy "forced bulbs," such as amaryllises (6, 12) and paperwhites (8), that you nurture into bloom; both make great hostess gifts. You can either mail-order bulbs online (try or ) and pot up your own, or buy ready-made kits at garden centers or big-box hardware stores. The resplendent amaryllis comes in many varieties, from spidery striped blooms ('Lima' or 'La Paz') to elegant white trumpets with green throats ('Evergreen' or 'Trentino'), to name a couple. For paperwhites—which stand tall like a host of particularly attentive angels—I look for the newer varieties like 'Galilee', 'Inbal' or 'Nir.' Their scent is less off-puttingly intense than some of their breed. Like amaryllises, paperwhites look great in groupings, planted in terra-cotta pots and dressed with moss. Unlike poinsettias, which are static, both plants continually grow and change, sending up shoots and edging their way into bloom.

Though winter is the peak bloom time for orchids (4, 10), this flower is often perceived as too refined to be jolly, and overlooked in favor of the more assertively festive poinsettia. But if your taste leans toward the modern, a white Phalaenopsis (moth) orchid is an elegant indulgence. I find a pink orchid refreshing, too. And, of course, orchids last months longer than any cut flowers. Find them at the suppliers mentioned above, and (incredibly affordably) at IKEA. Keep them out of direct light and water once a week.
Though merely green, topiaries can be lovely. I like to line a mantle with myrtle (5) that's been whimsically shaped into small trees or balls ( ). And one of my favorite moves is to group little cypress trees (7) in a window box indoors or out. You end up with a miniature forest that's Christmassy but not over the top. Look for the variety called 'Lemon' which has a citrus scent ( ).

I'm also a fan of Christmas cactus (1), a tough houseplant that can live on little water and light and which blooms in the winter, hence its name. Nestled into a pretty pot with its cascading flowers spilling over the edge of a foyer table, it welcomes your dinner guests when you're too preoccupied with cooking to do much more than mumble "Hello." If you can't find a Christmas cactus at the grocery store or Home Depot, try eBay, which offers an almost implausibly wide variety.

Finally, two plants that are normally seen outdoors—and too low to the ground to be fully appreciated: I recently noticed that farmers' markets and florists were offering small potted heathers (2), with their sprigs of vibrant magenta, and Lenten rose or hellebore Niger (13, pre-bloom), whose subtle beauty will impress your gardener friends. It's rare to see these hardy plants up-close when they're flowering. And if the ground in your area hasn't frozen, you can plant them in the garden to grow on once the hectic season's done.

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