Poinsettia (Euphorbia pulcherrima) is perhaps the best-known Christmas plant, which is ironic because it wouldn’t peak till Valentine’s Day if grown naturally. Growers encourage the Christmas show by limiting the amount of light plants get in fall. Poinsettias are beloved not for the tiny flowers but for the colorful bracts surrounding those flowers. They come in traditional red as well as pink, apricot, cream and white. Plants are either discarded in spring or cut back to about 6 inches and allowed to re-leaf. You can even grow them outdoors in summer in part shade before bringing them back inside in fall.
Norfolk Island pine (Araucaria heterophylla) can grow 200 feet tall in its native habitat. Everywhere else it’s a handsome houseplant with a graceful, evergreen habit year-round that grows about 6 or 7 feet tall; however, ‘Gracilis’ has a more compact size. As a houseplant, Norfolk Island pine enjoys bright, indirect light and cooler temperatures. You can take it outdoors in summer if placed in a lightly shaded spot with no direct sunlight. Feed it regularly with an acidic fertilizer packaged for rhododendrons.
Amaryllis (Hippeastrum spp.) is often sold as a dormant bulb grown for winter blooms. It has large trumpet-shape flowers in white, pink, red and bicolors that appear before the foliage. Some treat amaryllis as an annual, tossing the plant after it finishes blooming, but the bulb can be saved and replanted the following season if allowed to go dormant on its own later in the summer.
Dwarf Alberta spruce (Picea glauca var. albertiana) isn’t usually considered a houseplant but it’s gaining favor as a holiday decoration. Many times it is used as a miniature Christmas tree on a porch, but it can be brought inside and grown for the holidays if returned outdoors afterwards for winter dormancy. Just make sure to either mulch the roots heavily or plant the spruce in the ground.
Orchids give a taste of the tropics any time of the year but are especially appreciated over the winter months. They also make fine holiday gifts. Moth orchid (Phalaeopsis spp.), shown, is one of the easiest orchids to grow. It comes in a range of flower colors, including white, yellow, pink and purple—many with attractive spots or stripes on the petals. It does best in medium light and humidity, with a quick-draining bark mix allowed to dry slightly between waterings.
Lemon cypress (Cupressus macrocarpa) adds to the holiday spirit in two ways: with its chartreuse evergreen foliage and its lemony fragrance. Hardy outdoors in Zones 7 and higher, lemon cypress is a well-behaved indoor plant if given a window with plenty of sunshine. You can even let it vacation outdoors in the summer in full sun or part shade. Water whenever the top inch or two of soil is dry, and fertilize in spring with a balanced fertilizer.
Paperwhite Narcissus, commonly called paperwhites, are so easy to grow you don’t even need soil! You can plant the bulbs in pebbles or marbles as long as the bulbs sit just above the water level. They’ll send down roots to access the water. In addition to being easy to grow, paperwhites are favored for their charming snow-white blossoms. The best thing: Paperwhites can be tricked into sprouting and blooming earlier than normal when pre-chilled bulbs are started indoors.
Cyclamens offer a double dose of beauty: green heart-shape leaves mottled in silver and bright, butterfly-like blossoms from mid-fall to mid-spring. Cyclamen grows from bulblike corms and does best in bright light and cooler temperatures. It prefers even moisture but should be watered from the bottom (a saucer works well) so water doesn’t accumulate at the top of the corm and cause it to rot.
This plant (Schlumbergera bridesii or Schlumbergera truncata), although known as cactus, is really a succulent, having its origins in the tropics. Like the poinsettia, the Christmas cactus needs to follow a pretty strict regimen in the fall in order to bloom at holiday time. In order for the plant to form flower buds for holiday blooms, it needs extended darkness for at least four weeks prior.