Petunias to Poinsettias:

Notice the true flowers in center of colorful bracts. When purchasing, make sure cyathium or true flower is showing little or no pollen - this plant has yet to mature and will retain its beauty through holiday season.

Hard to believe it’s December, and Christmas is only 20 days from today! Thank heavens I have most of my shopping already done and Christmas at the Mansion is just a memory. November was spent making wreaths and arrangements for the Art Association’s booth at the event – glitter is everywhere!

So far we have been blessed with relatively mild winter weather – only one freeze event so far. Living at the top of a hill with large trees would normally protect the plants in my garden from brief little cold spells. Cold air, like water, flows downhill. But I’m fond of tropicals, and the garden has a large number of them. They don’t like the cold. Fortunately, the tropical plants in the garden have only had to contend with temps in the low 40s. 

To protect your plants, mulch your beds with native wood mulch, oak leaves, cypress mulch or hay. Make sure the mulch is three to four inches deep to be effective. Not only will the mulch protect the roots, it will keep the weeds down. Best of all, the mulch will break down and enrich the soil. What a bargain!

Don’t forget to water your beds before the cold weather arrives. Plants that are well hydrated survive cold weather better than plants that are stressed from a lack of moisture.

You may still set out transplants of petunias, snaps, pansies, violas, sweet alyssum and ornamental cabbage and kale. When visiting the nursery and big boxes, you will spot six packs or larger pots filled with pansies. Pansies are derived from a simple weed common to European cornfields – Viola tricolor. Known by the name “heart’s-ease” during Shakespeare’s day, the delicate little flower was known as a symbol of thoughtfulness. Its cheery little face has endeared it to gardeners for centuries. 

Violas are a better choice for our area – tougher than pansies. They are more tolerant of both heat and cold. They will tolerate sun or partial shade. Transplants do best if set out in late November when temperatures have cooled off. 

Cool weather greens make a nice addition to your flowerbeds and food for the table. The bronze leaves of ‘Red Giant’ mustard, blue frills of ‘Dwarf Blue Curled Scotch Vates’ kale and chartreuse leaves of ‘Black-seeded Simpson’ lettuce will provide sensational color to a dreary winter garden.

If you were energetic and prepared tulips, hyacinths and daffys for spring bloom, it’s time to plant. You have until the first weeks of January. Be sure to pick a sunny site and amend the soil with organic material. Work in cottonseed, alfalfa, along with compost. For a stunning spring bed, plant bulbs among masses of pansies, violas, sweet alyssum or dianthus. 

Cut back mums, coneflowers, lantana and Mexican bush sage to ground level as soon as frost has killed their foliage. Feed annuals with a soluble plant food such as 15-30-15 to encourage blooms. 

A great flower for the holiday season is the cyclamen. Grown for their flowers, the plants form an attractive clump of roundish to heart-shaped basal leaves that are reddish beneath and patterned with silver above. The blooms resemble butterflies and appear atop the clump on long stems. They make a spectacular planting when mixing shades of pink, rose and red together and will definitely brighten your day. 

Cyclamen, native to Mediterranean region, are found growing under ancient olive trees in the Garden of Gethsemane in Jerusalem. Although its scientific name hints at a Persian origin, it has never been found farther east than Israel and Syria. Its wild form, C. persicum has white flowers tipped with pink at the ‘nose,’ narrow, elegantly twisted petals and a delicate perfume. A single plant in full flower can scent a whole greenhouse. It is frost-tender. It became fashionable in the mid-1800s and plant breeders selected for color and size, and like the rose bred the scent out of the plant. In recent years, breeders are trying to regain some of the lost charm of the wild plant. They are trying for smaller blooms with scent and the bright colors. They have even had a breakthrough developing a yellow-flowered cyclamen. I personally love the pinks and red.

Cyclamens grow best in fairly rich, porous soil. Loosen soil to a depth of one foot, mixing in coarse sand and lots of organic matter. Cyclamens prefer a neutral to slightly alkaline pH. Hardy types should be planted under the oaks along with ferns, violas and bulbs. All make excellent container plants and will provide a splash of color all winter.

Another favorite of mine is stock (Matthiola). This old-fashioned garden plant will fill the garden with a rich, spicy-sweet fragrance. Another native of the Mediterranean region, stock has narrow gray-green leaves and masses of scented flowers in erect, spike-like clusters. They need light, fertile soil and good drainage. While stock will tolerate moderate frost, it will not set flower buds if nights are too chilly, so late planting delays bloom until spring. 

I have added a peachy pink poinsettia in the house this year. Thankfully, the Bell is over her need to strip the plants of their leaves so I no longer have to worry about her getting sick. Long rumored to be poisonous, researchers at the University of Ohio proved that poinsettias are nontoxic in the 1970s. While poinsettias aren’t poisonous, curious tots and pets can still get an upset stomach if the leaves are ingested. 

The flamboyant fronds of the poinsettia have long been a symbol of the Christmas season along with holly and evergreen. Sometimes referred to as a “Christmas star” or a “Mexican flame leaf,” the poinsettia represents purity. 

A charming Mexican folk tale holds, with the rapid approach of Christ’s birthday, a poor child lamented that she had no gift for him. She gathered a simple bouquet of weeds and approached the altar, whereupon the lowly weeds were transformed into the brilliant scarlet blossoms of the flower we know as the poinsettia. “Even the most humble gift if given in love, will be acceptable in His eyes” – from the Legend of the Poinsettia.

The first American ambassador to Mexico, Joel Poinsett, fell in love with the remarkable perennial during his time of service there. He was so entranced that he sent back cuttings in 1825 to his home in South Carolina so he could continue to enjoy the beauty of the exotic blooms and share their gift of splendor with others. 

Each holiday season, more than 60 million colorful containers find their way into homes, making them the most popular holiday plant. 

While the brilliant scarlet poinsettia is still the most popular, there are a myriad of exciting new cultivars in shades that range from deep claret to peppermint pink to creamy white. There are cultivars in solids, speckled and variegated hues. Leaf forms include serrated edges and oak-leaf shapes. Poinsettias, no longer limited to typical pot plants, are grown in tree forms and hanging baskets. When purchasing these unusual forms and cultivars, it’s best to be prepared for sticker shock! 

Most people consider the cluster of colorful bracts of the poinsettia the flower. The true flower, or cyathium, is the tiny circle of blossoms at the center of the bracts. When purchasing a plant, make sure the cymatium is showing little or no pollen – this poinsettia has yet to mature and will retain its beauty throughout the season.

Poinsettias are tropical and to make them welcome in your home, it will be necessary to provide at least six hours of bright light in a draft-free location. The soil should be allowed to dry slightly between watering. Do not leave any standing water in the plant saucer – standing water encourages root rot. If your plant comes to you in a plastic or brown paper sleeve, cut it away instead of pulling it off – the stems are brittle and break easily. If a stem breaks, sear the cut over an open flame and use it as a cut flower. 

Give yourself a splash of color this holiday season with one of the new cultivars or the traditional scarlet. Whether the plants are clustered on a table as a centerpiece, by the front door or displayed in the garden, poinsettias bring colorful cheer to your home.

Happy gardening.

Texas Master Gardener Columnist: Down the Garden Path