An Easter Basket of Flowers

Dr. Leonard Perry, Extension Professor
University of Vermont

The flower that most often comes to mind when we think of Easter is, of course, the Easter lily. But there are other flowers appropriate for this time of year as well, all with rather interesting origins.

In the Alps, the narcissus has been associated with Easter for centuries. In fact, even before Christianity, the narcissus represented springtime in Greek mythology.   It is still widely used as the main Easter flower in many countries.
In England and Russia, pussy willows are used for Easter flowers. In the Middle East, it is wild tulips, while in Mexico, tropical flowers fill the churches during this spring holiday season. The early Germans decorated with red flowers and red fruited plants such as English holly, believing the red color represented the blood of Christ. The field anemone (Anemone coronaria) also was associated with the passion of Christ.

The Easter cactus (Hatiora gaertneri, formerly Rhipsalidopsis), is so named as this relative of the Thanksgiving and Christmas cacti, all looking almost identical, blooms in spring.  The funnel-shaped, flaring flowers are either rose purple or scarlet orange, coming out of flat, segmented leaves.  These, as their kin, are often found in hanging baskets where they’re well adapted, growing naturally on trees in Brazil.  The flowers open during the day, closing at night.  Being a cactus, keep this one on the dry side.

Do you know the Bermuda lily?  You probably do, as this is the true name of the Easter lily, deriving from its origin.  It is a pure white flower, believed to symbolize purity. Coming from one bulb, the flower is said to represent the tomb of Jesus with the blossoms symbolizing his life after death.  It is the most common flowering potted plant of spring.

When buying a lily, select a plant with many unopened buds and leaves all the way down the stem. Poor growing conditions or root disease will cause the loss of leaves from the bottom up, so be sure to pull back the wrapper to check.

Choose a well-proportioned plant, one that’s about two to three times as high as the pot. Check the buds, flowers, and leaves–especially the undersides–for signs of insect pests and disease.

To keep your lily healthy at home, remove the decorative foil or paper covering the pot, or make a hole in the bottom, to allow better drainage. Put your plant where it will get plenty of bright, indirect light and cool temperatures. About 40 to 50 degrees F at night, or as cool as possible, and below 68 degrees F during the day is ideal.

You also will need to keep the soil constantly moist. To prolong the life of the blossoms, remove the yellow, pollen-bearing pods or anthers found in the center of each flower as it opens.

Don’t expect your lily to flower again as it’s already been “forced” once by the grower to bloom in time for Easter. However, you might get your lily to bloom again next fall by planting it outdoors once the soil has warmed up.

If you plan to replant your lily outdoors, remove the flowers as they fade. Put the plant on a sunny windowsill for four to six weeks until the foliage matures. Continue to water.  When the leaves turn brown, cut the stem off at the soil line. Then in late May, plant the bulb four to six inches deep in a sunny, well-drained location. Fertilize twice during the summer. With luck, your lily will bloom this fall. Just don’t count on it surviving a northern winter.

Other appropriate flowers for Easter, and spring in general, are other bulbs such as tulips and hyacinths, and azaleas.  The bulbs can be purchased as cut flowers, or in pots.  If potted, the hyacinths can be planted outside in warmer weather, and may survive to future years.  Most tulips, however, will not come back next spring.  If giving the hyacinth as a gift, make sure the recipient isn’t allergic to the strong odor of the flowers.

Azaleas come in reds, white, and pinks.  They are tender, so wont survive winter outdoors in northern climates.  Still, they are a good value.  Keep them moist (not wet), and cool with plenty of light, and you should get several weeks of blooms indoors.

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Shopping for Plants and Seeds

Dr. Leonard P. Perry
Extension Professor
University of Vermont

One of my favorite means of getting through a long winter is to start this coming year’s gardening by looking through catalogs, books, and shopping online.  Several considerations when shopping early for plants and seeds will make the process fun and less overwhelming.  You’ll end up with more garden successes this season, and fewer disappointments.

Whether ordering plants or seeds, keep in mind they will seldom look as spectacular in your garden as they do in the catalogs.  Thanks to photo technology, just as with models, plant photos are often “enhanced”.  Plus, they are usually taken under ideal conditions or at professional display gardens.  The printing process, if not done properly, may alter colors somewhat.  Consider the photos as a useful guide, just don’t despair if your plants aren’t quite the colors shown, and the plants aren’t as tall or wide, nor the flowers quite as large.  I often find this the case in my North Country gardens where the light isn’t as bright, nor are my beds as ideal and fertile as those where those “model plants” were photographed.

Another warning for both plants and seeds is to only order what you can manage to plant and care for.  Remember, you don’t just plant and walk away until bloom or harvest time.  The more you plant, the more time will be needed for watering, weeding, and other care.

Speaking from experience, it is too easy during a long winter to end up ordering a bit here and a bit there.  The final result is way more plants and seedlings than you have time to plant and care for, or even space for.  I try to figure just where plants will go in my gardens when ordering.  Of course all may not germinate, or be available, but you can always buy others later to fill in.  Chances are you’ll end up seeing some plants this season you “must” have, and having a few extra spaces in beds or the garden for these unplanned purchases is always handy.

Especially with seeds, order only enough for your needs.  Otherwise, you will be faced with entirely too many plants or with storing the unused seeds.  Ordering just what you can use and handle is one of the toughest problems most gardeners face this time of year, as seeds are so much easier to get too many of than plants.  But, if so, at least you can store leftovers of most seeds for a year or more under cool and dry conditions ( a jar in the refrigerator works well).

When ordering seeds, first figure how many plants you’ll need.  Then consult the catalog description to find the percent germination, and how many seeds per packet.  The germination is important, since if the packet has enough seeds, but the germination is low, you’ll want to order more.  Some packets such as geraniums may only contain 5 seeds, as they are quite choice and harder to produce.  Others may contain hundreds of seeds and be enough for several years!

Choose varieties that will bear fruit or flowers in our short northern growing season.  This is especially important for vegetables, such as tomatoes or corn.  Days until harvest are usually given in the descriptions.  For instance if your growing season is about 90 days, and you pick a variety that takes 120 days to bear fruit, you may be out of luck!

When ordering seeds, consider the All-America Selections.  These are new introductions that have been judged best by horticulture professionals nationwide.  These selections are one reason to start your own plants, as many are quite good, and can’t be found at many garden stores or even greenhouses.  You can learn more about this program online (

There are many new annual plants, often called “specialty annuals”, grown from cuttings rather than seeds.  You can read about these in catalogs and online, but an increasing number are available at local garden outlets so you may wish to plan now but buy locally this spring.

Catalogs and online websites also may be used for ordering plants that arrive in the mail later in the spring.  This is a good way to find many new and unusual perennial plants that may not be available locally.  This is especially true if you are interested in a certain genus, group, or niche of plants such as hostas or aquatic plants.  If you have some complete garden centers and specialty nurseries in your area, you may wish to check their listings first before ordering from catalogs.  More than once I have found and ordered a prized plant in a catalog, only to find it later cheaper locally, and without having to pay shipping!

When ordering plants there are several important points to remember.  Order from reliable sources in order to get good value and plants that are shipped properly.  Such sources are ones you may have used before, or heard recommended by friends and neighbors. Beware of inexpensive plants.  Price is often a good indication of quality and lower prices often reflect poor quality.  These plants seldom resemble those in the catalog, and they often die.

Finally, with perennial plants make sure and check their hardiness. Hardiness zones are often quite variable among catalogs, so look at several for a particular plant. Then take an average or use the more conservative (warmer) zone figures if you want to be more assured of a plant surviving.

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Easy houseplants– begonias

Dr. Leonard Perry, Extension Professor
University of Vermont

Begonias are an easy houseplant for beginners, with a range of species and selections for the more advanced gardeners.  Some are grown for flowers, others for their foliage.  They come in a range of sizes, shapes, and habit, from upright to spreading.  Many tolerate low light, and they have few if any pests.

Let’s deal first with the main need for begonias indoors, especially in buildings with forced air heat, that being to increase humidity levels around plants.  You can keep a misting bottle (as found in hardware or home stores) nearby and mist plants daily.  If this will harm walls or furniture, try a humidifier (this will help the air for you as well).  Placing plants on a tray of pebbles, and keeping this moist by watering the pebbles every day or two helps.  If plants are under lights, or some form of plant stand, you can place plastic over and around this to maintain higher humidity within the “tent.”  Many begonias will tolerate some dry air, but won’t thrive.

Keep plants watered, but not too wet.  If in doubt, don’t water.  Let soil dry between watering, then water thoroughly so water drains out the bottom of pots.  But don’t let plants sit in a saucer of water.  You can place water in a saucer under pots, letting the soil wick-up and absorb the water, just make sure to drain any left after an hour or two.

So what soil mix is best for begonias?  Use a soil-less mix, one formulated just for indoor plants and usually containing peat moss and perlite or vermiculite.  Don’t use amendments as you would in the garden, such as compost, nor garden soil.  These may be good in the garden but behave quite differently in pots, keeping plants too wet and often introducing diseases.

Begonias don’t like too large of a pot, preferring to be pot bound.  If you have a plant that takes days to dry out, perhaps the pot is too big and you should repot into a smaller pot.  If pots are too large, the mix remains wet for too long and often leads to root diseases.

Provide fertilizer (according to label directions on product of your choice) when plants are growing.  This actually might be in winter when leaves are off trees and more light may come in windows or be reflected off snow outside.  Perhaps better when fertilizing is to use a product at reduced strength, but more often.

Begonias like it warm, not being happy below about 55 degrees (F).  More ideal are temperatures between 62 and 72 degrees, with some difference between day and night.

Light preference varies with the type of begonia, so look for this on labels, in catalogs, online, books, or ask your garden retailer for advice.  You usually won’t go wrong using bright natural light, but little direct sun (such as an east window) or filtered sun (as with sheer window drapes).  Too much direct sun can “burn” leaves, causing discoloration or browning.

Good for most begonias is a supplemental light stand, which could be as simple as inexpensive shop lights with fluorescent tubes.  Suspend these over plants, a few inches between the tops of plants and light tubes.  Or you can use directed spot fixtures with full-spectrum light bulbs, if possible.  Keep any lights on for about 14 hours a day, or in the evening to supplement daylight from windows during short winter days.  Inexpensive timers from hardware or home stores work well for controlling lights.

If you end up with leaves staying too wet, as in a tented structure, a whitish disease called “powdery mildew” may cover leaf surfaces.  Keep the plants drier and this should disappear.  While begonias get few if any pests, keep an eye out for small white cottony masses, particularly where leaves join stems.  These “mealybugs” are easily controlled by dabbing them with rubbing alcohol.

If begonias get too tall and leggy, you can root cuttings for more or replacement plants.  Or just cut (“pinch”) plants back to the desired height, from which point they’ll grow sideshoots.  If rooting cuttings, place in a mix of sand and peat moss, or perlite, keep moist, and keep humid as in a clear plastic bag over the pot (but check daily to make sure plants are too wet).  Too tall and leggy may indicate too low light or too much fertility, or old plants needing rejuvenation.

The begonia family is huge, with over 1,600 species and thousands of selections.  Some are grouped by root type.  Those growing from a swollen yet flattened, brown tuber structure– the tuberous begonias– are best grown outdoors in summer in shade.  Those from an enlarged underground stem or rhizome, or those with fine fibrous roots, generally grow well indoors.  While the former are usually grown for their leaves and tolerate lower light conditions, the fibrous are usually flowering species for bright light.

You may see begonias grouped by habit, such as spreading, shrub, thick-stemmed, or cane types. Some recommend the shrub and cane types as better choices for indoors. The shrub begonias have multiple canes from the base to make a rounded plant.  Cane begonias have tough jointed stems (think of bamboo canes).  Another simple grouping consists of the flowering types, and those grown for the foliage.

Of the foliage begonias, the most common are the Rex begonias with their large leaves, perhaps 6 inches wide, in various shapes, and even more striking colors including reds, silver, green, pink, purple, and gray.  These are usually rhizomatous, and often need more humidity and moisture than other begonias. All the variations you’ll find descend from one ancestor, a species native to the northeastern Indian state of Assam.

Of the flowering types, the most common may be the fibrous-rooted wax-leaf (often called semperflorens from the species name), and cane-type angel wing begonias.  The names are descriptive of their leaves, and their small flowers come in various colors of reds, pink, and white.  These are often the types you see and use in summer gardens, and which can be potted before frost in fall and brought indoors.

Elatior begonias are another flowering type, being semi-tuberous and specially developed for long flowering indoors.  Angel wing have winged-shaped leaves, often with white or silver markings.  These two types, the angel wing and wax-leaf, have been crossed to make the Dragon Wing begonia.  They have the leaf shape of angel wing, but are green with no markings.

Another rather new and popular type, with solid green angel-shaped wings, is the Bolivian begonia, found growing naturally on the cliffs of Argentina.  These are great in hanging baskets or pots, reaching up to 2-feet across and covered in flowers all summer.  Popular examples are the bright orange Bonfire and scarlet red ‘Santa Cruz Sunset’.

If you want to see some of the range of indoor begonias, make plans to visit the greenhouses at the Montreal Botanical Gardens ( where they have one of the top begonia collections in North America.  (A great place to visit in winter in particular.) Or you can find more resources, with photos, from the American Begonia Society (

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Flowers for Your Valentine

Dr. Leonard Perry, Extension Professor
University of Vermont

Although traditional, red roses aren’t the only flowers that say “be mine” this February 14. Tulips (cut or in pots), carnations, iris, fragrant freesia, Peruvian lily, potted azaleas, and orchids are alternative flowers for giving to a special person on St. Valentine’s Day.

If you want to give roses, but can’t afford the high price tag for long-stemmed reds, why not choose sweetheart or miniature roses. They’re less expensive, just as lovely, and are available in the same range of colors including red, pale pink, white, lavender, yellow, and peach. Or, simply give one stem in a bouquet with the small white flowers of some baby’s breath, and a green fern leaf.

When choosing roses, you may want to pay attention to the color as different colors may have different meanings to the recipient.  Red, of course, is the most popular and represents romance and love, while lilac-colored roses are said to represent love at first sight.  Yellow, on the other hand, represents friendship and loyalty.  Pink roses can be used to express gratitude and to say thanks.

Or, select red and white carnations which are less expensive than roses. You may consider a mixed bouquet of red, white, and pink flowers. For example, you could ask your florist to make up a bouquet of white tulips, pink carnations, and a few red roses with sprigs of baby’s breath for the finishing touch. Or include a few long-lasting and more specialty flowers such as alstroemeria, freesia, or even cut orchid stems.  If you want a large and exotic bouquet, look for the large tropical red anthurium or ginger. Some florists have walk-in coolers where you can pick your own flower combinations.

If you select your own blooms, choose ones that are just beginning to open. Wrap the flowers well to protect them from the cold on your way home. Once you arrive home, recut the stems and immediately place in warm water with floral preservative. You can find this preservative in small packets at florists, or they may be included in pre-made bouquets.  Flowers will last longest if the water in the vase is changed, with new preservative and stems recut, every 3 or 4 days.  Make sure to remove any leaves that may be under water.

A flowering potted plant will provide enjoyment for many weeks, usually longer than cut flowers.   Potted tulips, azaleas, and cyclamen are all easy to care for and are commonly available in shades of pink, white, and red this time of year.

When buying a potted plant for indoors, look for one with many buds about to open rather than one already in full bloom. Inspect buds, flowers, and undersides of leaves for signs of disease or insect pests.

You may want to enclose a note with your gift to ensure that the plant will be given proper care. Mention that the plant needs to be kept well watered, but not overwatered, and out of drafts.  If the foil or paper covering the pot is not removed to allow adequate drainage, make a hole in the bottom to allow excess water to drain and of course place in a saucer to keep water off of indoor surfaces.  Most cut flowers and potted flowers last longest when given cool nights (55 to 60 degrees F) and warm (65 to 70 degrees F) during the day.

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Windowsill Herb Gardening

Dr. Leonard Perry, Extension Professor
University of Vermont
 An indoor kitchen herb garden will add flavor  to your meals and color to your window sills…and help satisfy that gardening desire during the cold, wintry months.

Most culinary herbs require at least five hours of sun per day. You can use a sunny window, provided the reflected heat is not too intense. If you don’t have a window with direct sunlight, put your pots of herbs in a spot with plenty of light, then move them into the sun for a few hours whenever possible.  Winter is a good time to start herbs as the sun is getting brighter and the days longer as the plants grow.

Fluorescent lights, or special grow lamps, also work if left on about 14 to 16 hours per day. Place the lights 6 to 12 inches above the tops of the plants, if possible. If the light source is too far away, insufficient light will reach the plants, and they won’t grow.  If using fluorescent lights, alternate warm and cool white bulbs in the tube fixture, or use ones listed for “natural” light.  If you just have a pot of herbs or two, you can use a spot lamp near them. 

You must also consider temperature and humidity. Most herbs need daytime temperatures of 68 to 70 degrees F with 30 to 50 percent humidity. To increase humidity, place a dish of water near the plants, or place the pots on a tray of pebbles you keep moist.

Pot your herbs in a mix of vermiculite or equal parts peat moss, garden loam, and coarse sand. Or buy a potting mix with such ingredients, but not the heavy garden loam.  The potting mix should be slightly moist before sowing. Any container will do, as long as it has good drainage.  You may want to start seedlings in a small flat or pot, then transplant as they grow.  Sow the seeds according to the package directions, but no deeper than two times the diameter of the seed.

After planting, lightly water with the spray nozzle on a sink, or mister.   Place each container inside a plastic bag to create a “greenhouse,” leaving the top slightly open to allow some air and moisture to escape. Set in a fairly warm location (65 to 75 degrees F) out of direct sunlight until seeds germinate.  Don’t place on a wood stove or too near, as the soil may stay too warm.  If near forced air heat vents, check often as this can dry out the soil and seeds.

Germination should start in two to three weeks. At that time, remove the plastic, and move the container to a cooler area (60 to 70 degrees F) where it will receive good light but not direct sun, unless for only a few hours in the day. Gradually increase the amount of sunlight if possible, and rotate pots for even exposure to sunlight. Continue to water, but don’t overdo it or the plants may rot. 

Thin your herbs when the seedlings have two sets of true leaves. If you started herbs in flats, this is the time to transplant them to individual pots. Use a similar potting medium as used for germination, or as for potting houseplants.
Herbs generally need little fertilizer, but will respond to some. Use a soluble liquid or dry fertilizer, and apply at half strength based on label directions. Liquid seaweed works well on many.  Over-fertilized plants often have a poorer flavor than those grown at a more moderate rate.

Potential problems growing herbs indoors are pests that you don’t see outdoors, due to natural predators there and the rain washing them off.  You can simulate the latter by regular gentle showers or baths for your mature plants.  If you wash them in soapy water, make sure it is quite dilute, otherwise the soap may injure the leaves.  If using organic sprays such as insecticidal soaps, make sure to read the label and check if herbs and edible plants are listed.  Watch, in particular, for aphids and spider mites.

Some easy-to-grow annual herbs that can be transplanted to your garden next spring include basil, parsley, dill, oregano, chives, coriander, tarragon, and anise.  I like to have a pot of mint handy for adding to peas (English style serving), or hot tea.  Mint, of course, is a vigorously spreading garden perennial that you may want to keep in a pot next summer. 

Some herbs are more commonly started from cuttings, so if you didn’t do so last season, you may want to look for these are garden stores or in catalogs.  Bay is a woody plant that does well in containers year round, and of course its leaves are common in Italian sauces as is thyme—another one to look for as a plant.  Rosemary is another woody plant, growing as a shrub in hot and Mediterranean climates.  Yet I find it will tolerate cool, but non-freezing, conditions. 

If planting your herbs outdoors this spring after frost, or starting an herb garden this summer, mark your calendar now to dig some plants next fall to bring indoors before frost for next year’s indoor herb garden.

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Fun Facts About Poinsettias

Dr. Leonard Perry, University of Vermont Extension

            Do you like trivia, or at least learning more about the top-selling holiday plant? If so, perhaps you will be interested in a dozen fun facts about the poinsettia plants you buy and see everywhere each December.

            Fact 1: Did you know that the poinsettia’s main attraction is not its flowers, but its leaves? The flowers of the plant are the yellow clustered buds in the center (termed “cyathia”). The colored leafy parts are actually bracts or modified leaves, that turn color in response to the plant forming flowers. When buying a poinsettia, make sure it has the buds, preferably not yet open.

            Fact 2. Red is the most popular color, accounting for roughly three-quarters of all sales nationwide, followed by white and pink. The more than 100 varieties of poinsettias come in a range of colors from red, salmon, and apricot to yellow, cream, and white (but not blue—these are a designer color created with dyes). There are also unusual speckled or marbled varieties with several colors blended together. New varieties are introduced yearly.

            Fact 3. How many poinsettias do you think are sold in a year? If you guessed over 34 million, you’d be in the ballpark. According to the 2013 USDA Floriculture Statistics report, poinsettias accounted for about one-quarter (23 percent) of sales of all flowering potted plants. In economic terms, that’s $144 million out of a total of $618 million in sales of all flowering potted plants.

            Poinsettias remain the highest selling potted flowering plant.  Of the traditional crops, Easter lilies are a distant second with $22 million in sales.  Potted orchids are higher value plants, so rated second in value ($186 million in sales), but a mere 23 million were sold.

            Fact 4. Although every state in the United States grows poinsettias commercially, California is the top producer with over 6 million pots grown, followed by North Carolina with 4.4 million pots sold, and Texas with about 3.7million. Florida and Ohio round out the top 5, each with over 3 million poinsettias sold.

            Fact 5. Did you know that in the wild or planted in tropical climates, the poinsettia can reach heights of 12 feet with leaves measuring six to eight inches across? It is actually a small tropical tree ( Euphorbia pulcherrima) belonging to the Euphorbia plant family.

            Fact 6.  A native of southern Mexico, the poinsettia blooms in December and has been used in that country to decorate churches for centuries. In the fourteenth to sixteenth centuries, the Aztecs used the poinsettia leaves to dye fabric for clothing and the sap for medicinal purposes, including to help control fevers. They also considered the red color a symbol of purity, and so poinsettias were traditionally part of religious ceremonies. In Mexico and Guatemala, the poinsettia is called (translated) the “Flower of the Holy Night” referring to Christmas Eve.

            Fact 7. Dr. Joel Roberts Poinsett, an amateur botanist and first United States ambassador to Mexico, introduced the plant that became known as the poinsettia to this country. He discovered a shrub with brilliantly colored red leaves growing by the side of the road in Taxco, Mexico, in December 1828 and sent cuttings home to his plantation in Greenville, South Carolina.

            Most botanists at that time dismissed the poinsettia as a weed? Fortunately, Poinsett continued to study and breed this plant in his greenhouse, sharing plants with his horticulturist friends. It soon gained acceptance as a holiday plant, despite its very short bloom time. It wasn’t until the 1960s that researchers were able to successfully breed plants to bloom more than just a few days.

            Fact 8. Here’s another bit of interesting trivia. December 12 is National Poinsettia Day ( Never heard of it? Believe it or not, the United States has observed this official day since the mid-1800s. It honors the man and the plant he introduced. Poinsett died Dec.12, 1851.

            Fact 9.  For much of the last century, the Paul Ecke Ranch in Southern California produced the majority of poinsettia cuttings and plants purchased in the U.S. and many of those worldwide.  Paul Ecke, Jr. is considered the father of this industry, as it is he who figured out a method for getting poinsettias to branch.  Prior they grew tall so stems had to be bent back into a loop, or “tromboned,” to keep them at a desirable height.  It is from this plant and firm that the football bowl game in San Diego gets its name.

            Fact 10. True or False. The poinsettia is a poisonous plant. If you answered false, you’re correct. The plant has been tested repeatedly and cleared of this charge by authorities such as the National Poison Center in Atlanta, Georgia, and the American Medical Association. However, this doesn’t mean that poinsettias are meant to be eaten. If ingested, this plant can cause stomach irritation and discomfort. Cats and children also may choke on the fibrous parts, so be sure to keep these plants out of their reach. The sticky white sap also may cause skin irritation for some people.

            Fact 11. Do you know the best way to prolong the life of this Christmas plant? Avoid hot or cold drafts, keep the soil moist not soggy, and place in a room with sufficient natural light and temperatures of around 60 to 70 degrees F. Water when the soil begins to dry. Once the leaves wilt too far, it’s too late.

            Above all, protect it from exposure to wind or cold on the way home from the store. Poinsettias are highly sensitive to cold temperatures and even a few minutes of exposure to 50-degree F or lower temperatures will cause them to wilt. But when cared for properly, poinsettias usually will outlast your desire to keep them!

            Fact 12.  The most common question many have is, can I get the poinsettia to rebloom next year, and if so, how?  Yes is the short answer, but it requires some work and regularity. If you want to try though, keep in mind that flowering in this plant responds to short daylengths (or actually long nights).  They need daylight for no more than 10 hours daily, beginning around October 1.  So you’ll need to place plants in a darkened closet or room (with no lights at any time) from about 5pm to 7am or so, daily, for 8 to 10 weeks.   Don’t forget to bring it back into the daylight every day! Even if you are successful, keep in mind that much superior plants will be available from greenhouses and growers, as well as new varieties in all sizes.

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Winterberry: Our Native Holly

Dr. Leonard Perry, Extension Professor
University of Vermont


If you are looking for an easy care, native ornamental plant to add color to the late fall and early winter landscape, consider the winterberry.  Also known as winterberry holly or North American holly (Ilex verticillata), this relative of the evergreen hollies is “deciduous” (losing its leaves in winter). It loses its dull green leaves in autumn, leaving an abundance of attractive scarlet berries (orange on yellow on some selections) on every stem and branch. These are attractive in arrangements, or just left in the landscape, if they aren’t devoured by birds.

Native populations of winterberry can be found from the eastern Canadian provinces of Newfoundland and New Brunswick south to Virginia and as far west as Michigan. This shrub is generally found in swampy areas, wet thickets, and low woodlands, and is often seen in masses in such areas from highways. Winterberry can grow up to 10 to 15 feet tall, although they are generally half that height. Cultivars for landscape situations generally range in height from 3 feet up to 6 feet.

Winterberry is hardy for USDA hardiness zones 4 to 9 (to -20F average minimum temperature in winter, or lower), which includes much of New England except for the coldest regions. Plant in full sunlight. This plant prefers acidic to slightly acidic, wet soil– conditions which mimic its natural habitat. Planting it near a pond or stream is perfect. However, it also can be grown in drier soil or partial shade, though may not spread as much.

It is ideal for wildlife landscaping as its dense, twiggy growth provides nesting sites for songbirds.  Fruit are eaten by red squirrels, cedar waxwings, catbirds, thrushes, and other birds. It is surprisingly disease-resistant, prone only to occasional leaf spots or powdery mildew.

One thing to keep in mind is that you will need to plant both male and female plants for fruit production. Purchase at least one male plant for every three to four female plants, and plant close together.

You also need to think about placement in the garden as this shrub is at its most attractive stage from September through mid-winter when its branches are covered with brightly colored berries.  In summer, this plant has only tiny white flowers. Leaves are pale to dark green and elliptical to round in shape, depending on cultivar.

Many cultivars (cultivated varieties) of winterberry grow well in this part of the country. In trials a few years ago at the University of Vermont, best were ‘Jolly Red’, ‘Maryland Beauty’, ‘Winter Red’, and the hybrid ‘Sparkleberry’.

‘Winter Red’ is a favorite for cutting for arrangements as it is multi-stemmed with an abundance of bright red, medium-sized berries and dark green leaves that turn bronze in autumn. It can grow to nine feet tall. ‘Winter Gold’ has a similar growth habit and produces attractive peach to gold-orange berries that get paler as they age.  A good male cultivar for pollinating these is ‘Southern Gentleman”.

For a low hedge or mass planting, choose ‘Red Sprite’ with its tight branching and mature height of only 3 to 5 feet, which you may also find as ‘Nana’. It was the 2010 Holly of the Year of  the Holly Society of America.  ‘Afterglow’ too is rather low, only reaching about 6 feet at most, and has lovely orange-red berries. ‘Jim Dandy’ is a good male pollinator for these, as well as for the 5-foot ‘Maryland Beauty’, the 8-foot ‘Stoplight’, or the 9- to 10-foot ‘Jolly Red’.

‘Maryland Beauty’ has dense cluster of dark red fruit along stem, developing color early.  It is the cultivar often grown commercially for its cut stems, and was Holly of the Year for 2008. ‘Jolly Red’ is an older cultivar, originally from Connecticut, with large berries.  ‘Stoplight’ and  ‘Hopperton’ are names for the same plant—a newer cultivar with deep red fruit.

‘Sparkleberry’ is a hybrid of the winterberry species with an Asian species, the finetooth holly (serrata), bred in the 1970’s by the USDA.  The result is a shrub, 10- to 12-feet high, with young leaves that are plum colored, and large glossy fruit that ripen early.  But it is not as hardy (USDA zone 6 reliably, or -10F) as the other winterberries.  Use the hybrid cultivar ‘Apollo’ for pollination.

These are only a few of the good winterberries available.  Check with your local full service garden center or nursery for their recommendations.

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