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GARDEN TIPS – Written by Marianne C. Ophardt
WSU Extension Faculty
for the Tri-City Herald, Kennewick, WA Written December 20, 2015

Many different Christmas holiday traditions have been adapted from ancient winter celebrations. Not long ago I was watching a reality television baking competition. The contestants were tasked with baking yule log cakes. It started me thinking about yule logs.

What is a yule log? For that matter, what is yule? Why is it associated with the winter holidays? Yule or “Jul” is an ancient northern European and Scandinavian celebration of the winter solstice, the shortest day (or longest night) of the year. It is the official beginning of winter for us today.

Jul or Yule celebrated the rebirth of the sun and the return of nature. Part of this winter holiday included a ceremony that involved bringing a whole tree indoors, placing its trunk in the hearth, and then lighting the base on fire. As it burned over a 12-day period, the trunk continued to be fed into the hearth.

The Yule log tradition eventually became part of European Christmas traditions, but instead of an entire tree, it was a large log burned for the twelve days of Christmas that start on December 25 (Christmas) and end on January 6th which is Feast of Epiphany for western Christians.

Today, many households do not have large open hearths where they can burn an entire tree or even a large log. Maybe that is why the baking of a “yule log” cake has become a Christmas tradition in parts of Europe. It is made of rolled chocolate sponge cake layered with cream filling and decorated to look like a log. Yum!

As a “tree person,” I have always been intrigued with the tradition of the Christmas tree. Its origins can be traced back to the pagan winter festival of Saturnalia, honoring Saturnus, the god of agriculture. Trees were decorated as part of the festival.

In the middle ages, evergreen trees were decorated with apples as part of the December 24th Adam and Eve Feast. In the early 1500s, undecorated evergreen trees were set up in homes in some areas of Germany to celebrate Christmas. That may be why Christmas lore credits Martin Luther as being the first to decorate a Christmas tree with candles in an attempt to recreate the shining of stars in the winter sky.

Historians dispute that Luther began the practice of decorating Christmas trees with lights and ornaments, citing that the first evidence of a decorated tree dates back to 1546, long after Luther’s death. These first decorations consisted of paper flowers, apples, nuts, and candies. The Christmas tree tradition did not come to the U.S. until the early 1800s when Germans migrated here and brought the tradition with them.

Whoever we want to credit with the origins of the decorated Christmas tree, it is amazing that this tradition still persists today. Last year 26.3 million real Christmas trees were purchased in the U.S. along with 13.9 million artificial ones. Real or fake, trees lit with twinkling lights and decorated with pretty ornaments are certainly a great way to celebrate Christmas and the passing of the winter solstice. Hurray, the days will be getting longer again! Next year’s gardening season is on its way.


written by
Marianne C. Ophardt
WSU Extension Faculty
for the Tri-City Herald, Kennewick, WA
published 12/6/13

Did you know that in 2002 Congress designated December 12th, as National Poinsettia Day? While it is not a national holiday, its purpose is to encourage everyone to enjoy the beauty of this national treasure.

This recognition as “thee” standard holiday plant is due to the impressive marketing efforts of Paul Ecke Jr. Ecke introduced the poinsettia to the national stage with brilliant product placement strategies. Night owls who stayed up late in the 1960

s may remember the hundreds of poinsettias decorating the set of the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. Ecke also encouraged magazines like Women’s Day and Sunset Magazine to use poinsettias on their holiday covers and in their holiday home decorating photos.

Today, when someone wants a pretty flowering plant for a holiday centerpiece, a red poinsettia is usually the plant of choice. Making up about 75 per cent of the poinsettias sold each year in this country, red poinsettias are unlikely to lose their number one spot any time soon. White and pink poinsettias come in a distant second and third. There are also other color options available including salmon, apricot, plum, burgundy, dark red, creamy white, and speckled, marbled, or variegated novelty varieties (cultivars).

Interestingly, when consumers were asked to rank the newest poinsettia cultivars in variety trials run by North Carolina State University (NCSU), their top pick was ‘Ice Punch.’ Ice Punch is a novelty cultivar with red edged petals (actually bracts) with white centers. The consumers’ top five choices surprisingly did not include any of the plain red poinsettias in the trials.

I wonder if the main reason that three quarters of us buy red poinsettias is because that is the only color available in many retail outlets or maybe it is just tradition. NCSU researchers also found that when they asked consumers to rank different red cultivars, they selected bright red ones over the darker ones that have been the mainstay of the poinsettia market for well over 20 years. I bet that’s some information that a marketing genius like Paul Ecke Jr. could capitalize upon.

If you are decorating your home with red or different colored poinsettias, here are some information tidbits that might come in helpful:

The true poinsettia flower is at the center of the colorful bracts. The freshest poinsettias will have green or red-tipped flowers. Those with flowers that are shedding their pollen will not last as long. Avoid any plants with yellow leaves or those that are dropping leaves.

The poinsettia is a sub-tropical plant native to Mexico and does not tolerate freezing temperatures. If the temperature is below freezing when you take a poinsettia from the store to its new home, wrap it with paper and transport it in a warm vehicle. At home, keep your plant out of both cold and warm drafts. It will last the longest when kept at 60 to 70 degrees during the day and 55 degrees at night.

The potting mix should be kept slightly moist. Water your plant when the mix feels dry and immediately discard any excess water that drains off when you water. To keep your plant as long as possible, do not let the mix dry out or let the pot sit in water.

While poinsettias are not considered highly toxic, they can cause vomiting and diarrheas if eaten. Plus, their milky white sap can be irritating to the skin and mouth. Keep leaves, stems, and flowers away from children and pets.

Published: 12/6/2013 3:49 PM


written by
Marianne C. Ophardt
WSU Extension Faculty
for the Tri-City Herald, Kennewick, WA
published 12/20/13

While the poinsettia is the top selling flowering indoor plant in this country, the Kalanchoe (Kalanchoe blossfeldiana) is one of the top selling potted plants in Europe. While not nearly as popular here, Kalanchoes have been slowly gaining in popularity. Almost any time of year you can find pretty ones for sale at the grocery store. During the holidays you may run across ones with red or white flowers, but there are also pink, fuchsia, orange, or yellow flowered types.

You may struggle with pronouncing its name (kal‑lan‑KOE‑ee), but you don=t have to say its name correctly to appreciate it. Native to a semi-area of Madagascar that receives less than 15 inches of rain per year, the Kalanchoe is a drought tolerant succulent with thick, waxy, scalloped-edged leaves.

The first cultivars of Kalanchoe marketed to consumers in the 1950

s had orange or red flowers. Plant breeders= efforts have led to more diverse, more attractive flower color selections. The long lasting flower clusters are produced above the leaves. Individual flowers in the clusters have four petals, but there are double-flowered types that have many more petals, making each flower look like a tiny rose.

The early cultivars were generally propagated from seed and took as much as ten months before flowering. Newer cultivars are more compact, more uniform, propagated by cuttings and bloom much sooner.

Kalanchoes are easy-care plants. If you bring home a Kalanchoe, it will not need much attention. They do best with lots of bright light and the soil should be allowed to dry out slightly before watering. Kalanchoe like daytime temperatures of 50 to 70 degrees and nighttime temperatures of 45 to 65 degrees. (The flowers will last longer at the cooler temperatures.)

Once it is done flowering, cut off the flower stalks and then repot the plant into a slightly larger pot. Be sure to use a well drained potting mix, such as one specifically for cacti and succulents. Grow the plant on a sunny windowsill.

Kalanchoe is a short-day/long-night plant. This means that it flowers in response to long nights (12.5 hours or more of darkness each night) that happens naturally as the days become shorter in the fall. However when growing as an indoor plant, a Kalanchoe may be subjected to indoor lighting at night and this will delay flowering. If you truly want to re-bloom your plant, you need to give it uninterrupted darkness for at least 12.5 hours each night. Put it in a dark closet or box at night, but still give it bright light during the day. Anytime it doesn=t get the long-night treatment, flowering will be delayed.

After about six weeks of consistent uninterrupted long nights, the flower buds will start to form and the plant will no longer need the long-night treatment for flowering to proceed. If this sounds like too much work, you may simply want to throw the plant out and buy a new one. They can certainly brighten up a dreary winter day or cheer you any time of year.

Published: 12/20/2013 3:41 PM


written by
Marianne C. Ophardt
WSU Extension Faculty
for the Tri-City Herald, Kennewick, WA

It’s probably because I’m a botanist at heart that at this time of year I’m fascinated by how certain plants became associated with Christmas.

Most of us know at least one version of how the tradition of Christmas trees started. Some think it started with Martin Luther in the 16th century. Luther supposedly cut down a Christmas tree and set it up inside his home to celebrate Christmas. Others think it reaches much further back into pagan times when the Romans celebrated the winter solstice with the feast of Saturnalia, decorating their homes with greens and lights.

The first evidence of erecting an evergreen tree and decorating it to celebrate Christmas can be traced back to 15th century Estonia and Latvia where trees were set up in the center of town and young men and women danced around the trees. The trees were set on fire after the last night of the Christmas celebrations.

It’s believed that the modern Christmas tree tradition began in western Germany as part of the church’s ‘Paradise Tree’ tradition. Church plays at Christmas time involved a Paradise Tree which was represented by evergreen branches decorated with apples, symbolizing the infamous apple tree in the Garden of Eden. The feast of Adam and Eve was on December 24 and the tradition of a Paradise Tree transformed into the practice of setting up decorated Christmas trees inside homes. Keeping with the tradition’s origin, some families still practice not setting up or decorating their tree until Christmas eve.

Poinsettias have become a Christmas decorating tradition in the U.S. The poinsettia’s use as part of Christmas celebrations dates back to when the Spanish invaded Mexico and conquered the Aztecs. Seventeenth century Franciscan priests in Mexico utilized these brightly colored red-bracted native Mexican plants as part of their nativity processions.

Although Joel Poinsett, the first US ambassador to Mexico, introduced the poinsettia (later named after him) to the U.S. in 1825, it wasn’t until 1923 that Paul Ecke of California developed the first suitable potted poinsettias for Christmas use. By the 1960s, the poinsettia became a popular holiday plant due to the Ecke family’s shrewd marketing practices, improvements in the potted pointsettia through breeding efforts, and mass production as a potted greenhouse crop.

Today, the Paul Ecke Ranch is one of the world’s largest poinsettia producers in the world and continues to improve the poinsettia through breeding. Unlike the poinsettias of 1923 or even those of the 1960s, the ones brought home this holiday season will keep their colorful flower bracts until almost springtime. Red was once the only color of poinsettia available to consumers, but now there are white, pink, plum, burgundy, speckled, marbled, peach, and even orange ones.

Today, the English Christmas season tradition of ‘wassailing’ involves caroling, drinking, eating and visiting friends and family. However, it was originally a way to honor apple trees in mid-winter to insure a good harvest the next season. Caroling wassailers visited all the apple orchards in their area. In each orchard a tree was chosen for the honor of an incantation, an application of cider to the roots, and dancing around the tree. Imagine how much wassailing would be involved in Washington if it was a tradition today!
Published: 12/16/2011 9:42 AM


written by

Marianne C. Ophardt

WSU Extension Faculty

for the Tri-City Herald, Kennewick, WA

I bet you’ve seen the many beautiful poinsettias for sale in local nurseries, grocery, hardware, and discount department stores? I thought you might like to learn a little more about this very popular holiday plant. Here is some interesting poinsettia trivia:


Did you know that when grown outdoors in subtropical climates, the Christmas poinsettia grows into a large shrub or tree that can reach a height of 16 feet? I’ve seen them myself. One year my family spent the holidays in Florida. I was just a young girl, but I still remember being impressed with the pretty poinsettia bushes flowering in the landscapes. The native poinsettia species, Euphorbia pulcherrima, is native to Mexico where it can be found growing wild in tropical forests.


Poinsettias flower in response to the longer nights of fall and winter. This happens naturally when poinsettias are grown outdoors in subtropical climates, like Florida. In the past, greenhouse growers had to “trick” them into flowering in time for the holidays. In the fall, they would cover greenhouse poinsettias with light-blocking black cloth to keep any light from reaching them. Typically, growers started covering the plants in late September to early October and provided 12 to 14 hours of darkness each night. They also provided at least eight hours of bright light each day. Some cultivars still require covering for early flower production, but modern breeding has produced cultivars that flower on their own early enough for the holiday season without using black cloth to simulate long nights.


In 1919, the death of a toddler in Hawaii was incorrectly attributed to the child eating poinsettia. Ever since then poinsettia purveyors have been trying to correct the misconception that the poinsettia is poisonous. Research studies at Ohio State University found that the poinsettia is not toxic and the POISINCDEX Information Service indicates that there is no reasonable poisoning risk to children or adults from potted poinsettias in the home.

How about pets? According to the ASPCA, the poinsettia is not considered extremely toxic to cats and dogs. Ingestion “typically produces only mild to moderate gastrointestinal tract irritation, which may include drooling, vomiting and/or diarrhea.” While eating poinsettias is not usually fatal for pets, it’s best to keep kitties and puppies from eating them.

I wonder if the myth that poinsettias are poisonous persists because it’s a member of the Euphorbia or spurge family. Some members of the spurge family are considered poisonous because of their latex-like milky sap. Their sap is caustic and can cause skin irritation, inflammation and blistering. The sap can also irritate mucous membranes and the digestive tract if eaten. Spurges with toxic sap that are familiar to gardeners are Snow-On-The Mountain (Euphorbia marginata), Daphne (Daphne mezereum), and Creeping Spurge or Donkey Tail (Euphorbia myrsinites). If you get the milky sap of any spurge on your skin, be sure to wash it off as soon as possible.


According to the University of Illinois “poinsettias are the best selling flowering potted plant in the United States” with over $200 million worth of poinsettias sold over a six week period during the holidays every year. Interestingly, 80 percent of the over 60 million plants sold are purchased by women and 80 percent of those making poinsettia purchases are over 40 years old.

The first poinsettias introduced to American consumers were red, but plant breeders have worked over the years to develop white, pink, rose, wine red, orange, apricot, and even purple varieties. However, red is a traditional color for the holidays and 80 percent of American consumers buy red poinsettias, with white poinsettias coming in a far second and pink ones are third. What color poinsettia are you going to buy?

Published: 12/5/2009 1:46 PM


written by

Marianne C. Ophardt

WSU Extension Faculty

for the Tri-City Herald, Kennewick, WA

I was recently asked to speak to a combined class of sixth graders at Horse Heaven Hills Middle School. I wasn’t sure what I could talk about that might be of interest to the students, but I decided to talk about planting trees. After I finished giving my presentation I invited questions about trees or plants from the class. I was delighted to see how interested the students were in plants… almost everyone’s hands went up with a question. Here are just three of the questions that I received. I thought you might like to know the answers too.

QUESTION 1: It seems like our real Christmas trees dry up as soon as we set them up indoors. My parents are worried about fire and think that we should buy an artificial tree instead. I like real trees the best. They smell so good. Is there anyway to keep a real tree fresh for longer so we can get one without my parents worrying?

A fresh tree kept in water indoors can last for a month or more in good condition. There are four keys to keeping a real tree as fresh as possible and avoiding a fire hazard. First, start with a fresh tree. A tree that’s already dried out won’t last long no matter what you do.

Second, use a clean tree stand that holds at least four quarts of water. Once you set the tree up, it should be checked everyday and refilled as the water goes down. Never let the water level drop below the base of the tree. Research at WSU has shown that a fresh tree can take up as much as a full gallon of water the first day you set the tree up! Use only plain water with no special preservatives or additives in the water. WSU research has also proven that water additives, home concoctions or commercial products, have no benefit. In fact, some additives can actually reduce tree quality.

Third, cut off an inch or more off the base of the trunk just before you place it in the stand. This exposes the new xylem cells. These are the cells that take water up. When not covered with water, the xylem cells seal over within six hours and the uptake of water is obstructed. That’s why it’s always critical to keep the water level in your stand above the base of the tree. If allowed to dry out even once, water uptake will be slowed and your tree will start to dry out.

The fourth and final critical key to keeping a real tree as fresh as possible, is to situate the tree away from sources of heat such as hot air registers, baseboard heaters, wood stoves, and fireplaces.

QUESTION 2: My aunt has a weeping fig tree (indoor plant). She recently moved it from one place to another in her house and it dropped all its leaves. Should she move it back?

Weeping figs seem to drop their leaves if you cause them any sort of stress or change in their environment. In fact, it’s the most common problem with this indoor plant. If the new location adequately provides for its needs, then it will eventually stop dropping leaves and grow new leaves. The best environment for a weeping fig is one where they get lots of bright indirect sunlight, warm day (75 to 85 degrees) and night (65 to 70) temperatures. They also like high humidity and do best if their soil is kept moderately moist. Your aunt should move the weeping fig back if the new location fails to provide adequately for the plant’s needs.

QUESTION 3: We bought some of the lucky bamboo at the store. Can we plant it outdoors and why is it “lucky” ?

The plants sold by craft stores and other marketers are not really bamboo. Instead they are Dracaena sanderiana, a type of tropical plant that can be grown as a houseplant. Marketers selected this dracaena because it’s stem looks so much like bamboo and it’s easy to grow them in water. Other types of dracaena, such as Dracaena marginata, are also tropical plants that are grown as indoor plants. As a tropical plant, it can’t be planted outdoors and expected to survive the frosty temperatures of fall and winter.

As to why it’s “lucky,” I’m not sure. It could be because of the special significance of bamboo in various Asian cultures. Bamboo has long been a symbol of good luck or good fortune. Various marketers indicate that lucky bamboo is based on Chinese tradition, with different number of bamboo stalks having different meanings with the main ingredients for a happy life being “happiness, wealth, and longevity.” Different numbers and arrangements of the lucky bamboo signify different wishes for you, such as three stalks for happiness, five for health, six for prosperity, seven for good health or wealth, eight for thriving or prosperity, ten for completion and perfection, and twenty-one for a powerful blessing. A tower of lucky bamboo with 35 or more pieces “anchors fortune and lights up the future” and signifies more good things in life, a better life, or a promotion.

To care for lucky bamboo, their bases are placed in some sort of medium, such as clean aquarium gravel, clean sand, decorative pebbles, or marbles with water. They can also simply be sustained in plain water, covering the stem for an inch or less in water. Some Marketers don’t recommend adding any fertilizer to the water, others do. The water should be changed once a week. Don’t use water containing fluoride, as it’s toxic to dracaena.

The lucky bamboo do best with some indirect sunlight. They will grow roots on the stem bases, and more leaves from the sprouts that form at the top and sides of the stalks. However, their stalks will stay at the same height. They’re considered more of a decoration or curiosity, than a houseplant. Lucky bamboo can be maintained for quite a while in a home environment if they get some light and you regularly change their water.

You’ve probably noticed that some lucky bamboo for sale has fancy, curled stems and you may have wondered how they grew that way. It’s certainly not natural, as dracaena stems tend to be straight. Lucky bamboo farmers train the plants to grow that way. They do this by growing them horizontally on a table and covering three sides of the plant, so that only one side receives bright light. The plant then grows toward the light and the stem grows in that direction too. They then periodically rotate the stems to create a curl in the stem. Supposedly, it takes quite a while to create just one curl… an average of one and half years.

They were a great bunch of students Horse Heaven Hills Middle School and it’s my hope that they’ll stay interested in science and plants.

Published: 12/18/2004 2:10 PM


written by Marianne C. Ophardt WSU Extension Faculty for the Tri-City Herald, Kennewick, WA It used to be we could wait until Thanksgiving was over before we started to see signs of the approaching holiday season. This year, merchants started pushing holiday gifts and decorations even before Halloween … and this week I even noticed some stores advertising the availability of cut Christmas trees and poinsettias. It

s not even December yet! For good or bad, the holiday season rushes in earlier and earlier each year. While late November seems too early to me for bringing home a poinsettia, the growers that produce the plants must think about it months in advance. The process starts every year at this time when the National Poinsettia Trials are run at one garden center and two universities (University of Florida, North Carolina University). Commercial poinsettia breeders sponsor the trials that are open to the public. The evaluation of the cultivars includes a survey of consumers to find out which of the new cultivars they would prefer to buy. Growers are also interested in each cultivar

s ease of production. Gardeners like you and me delight in some of the novelty cultivars introduced each year, but the traditional red poinsettia still ends up being the ones that consumers tend to buy. The 2007 trials indicated that the red poinsettias received the most favorable reception. Scoring well were ‘Cortez Electric Fire

with bright red bracts along with the more traditional dark red cultivar types. When it comes to white cultivars, consumers indicate a preference for bright white ones, such as ‘White Christmas

, but even this preferred white cultivar didn

t rank amongst the top 15 consumer favorites. There are a number of other novelty types that seem to amuse consumers and scored well in their own novelty categories, such as ‘Polly

s Pink

with bright pink bracts, ‘Merlot

with wine or dark red bracts, ‘Carousel Dark Red

with ruffled dark red bracts, and ‘Winter Rose

types with incurved bracts that somewhat resembles a rose. The variegated marbled and peppermint types of poinsettias were not favored by those consumers who like poinsettias. New to the trials last year were mixed containers of ‘Diamond Frost

and poinsettia. ‘Diamond Frost

is a Proven Winners

annual flower that was marketed this past spring for use in containers. It

s a euphorbia with small white flowers and serves as a filler plant. Consumers at the trials found these mixed containers more appealing than planters with just poinsettia. I wonder if we

ll be seeing this idea showing up in our region? Apparently there

s a good chance that about 75 per cent of you that will be buying a poinsettia will take home a red one. Whatever the color, here a few hints for keeping them looking their best, since some are already available in the stores! 1. Buy a fresh compact plant that looks healthy and has fully colored bracts. At the center of the colorful bracts that we call flowers is the true flower or “cyathea”. You don

t want to select a poinsettia with cyathea that are open and shedding pollen. That means the plant is past its prime. You also don

t want a plant that

s dropping bracts or wilting… not a good sign of health or freshness. Beware of plants that have been stored for any length of time in plastic or foil sleeves. The longer they

re in a sleeve or crowded with other plants, their quality deteriorates. In these situations, the roots may have stayed wet and already started to develop root rot. 2. Poinsettias don

t like cold temperatures below 50 degrees Fahrenheit. When transporting them to their new home, protect them with a roomy paper bag and transport them in a warm vehicle. 3. Place the poinsettia in a location where it will receive at least six hours of indirect sunlight. 4. Poinsettias like it best when not kept too warm. Room temperatures of 68 to 70 degrees Fahrenheit during the day and 60 to 65 degrees at night are good. Don

t place plants near a heat source such as a heating duct, wood stove, fireplace, or even a warm television. 5. Water a poinsettia with lukewarm water when the soil is dry to your touch. Don

t let them get too dry and wilt. After watering, excess water at the base of the pot should be discarded immediately. Poinsettias also don

t like “wet feet.” Fertilizer is only needed after bloom if you decide to keep your plant past the holiday season.

Published: 11/29/2008 1:32 PM


written by

Marianne C. Ophardt

WSU Extension Faculty

for the Tri-City Herald, Kennewick, WA

When the Pilgrims arrived in Massachusetts the week before Christmas in1620 they found a plant that reminded them of the holiday season they were missing back home (according to the U. S. Forest Service in their “Silvics of North America”). The plant they discovered was American holly (Illex opaca) which strongly resembled the English or European holly (Ilex aquifolium). English holly has been associated with Christmas and used for holiday decorating for many centuries. The American holly looked very similar to the English holly with its prickly leaves and red berries.

The use of English holly in connection with a winter holiday even predates Christian tradition, going all the way back to the times of the druids and pagan Romans who associated holly with the God of Saturn. Holly was used to celebrate the Feast of Sol Invictus on December 25th. This special day was to honor the return of the sun and increasing day length. Holly later became part of Christmas holiday legends and decorating traditions.

American holly is native to the eastern part of the U.S. from Massachusetts to Florida, thriving in the mild and humid regions of the southeast. It grows best in slightly acid, rich, moist soils that are well drained. In its native range, the American holly tends to grow best as an understory tree in deciduous forests. In the home landscape it can be placed in partial shade and full sun, except for areas like ours that have extremely low humidity, intense summer sun, and very high summer temperatures. In this part of Washington it’s best to locate the plants where they’ll be protected from heat and afternoon sunlight.

Both the American and English hollies are dioecious. This means that some plants are male and only produce male flower and some plants are female and only produce female flowers. For fruit to develop, female flowers must be pollinated by pollen from male flowers. This means that if you plant a female holly you also need to plant a male holly nearby to get decorative red berries on the female. The male must be within 200 feet from the female for the bees to provide adequate pollination. If that isn’t practical in your landscape situation, you may want to consider one of the grafted plants that can be found at some nurseries. Male wood is grafted onto the female plant so one plant can produce both female and male flowers on different branches.

English and American hollies are members of the holly family (Aquifoliaceae) and belong in the same genus (Ilex) along with 400 other species. The native form of the American holly grows into a 30 to 50 foot pyramidal tree. That’s too big for most home landscapes, so plant breeders have developed a number of different cultivars (cultivated varieties) that vary in plant size and shape, in berry color, and in foliage form and color.

‘Clarendon’ is a shrub dwarf form growing to only eight feet tall with a wider spread.

‘Maryland Dwarf’ is even smaller with a height of three feet and a spread of ten feet, but it produces few berries.

‘Howard’ – is a cultivar for gardeners who don’t like messing with the spiny leaves of holly. It has leaves that are practically spineless.


s Silver Crown

– produces leaves edged with creamy white.

Ilex opaca f. xanthocarpa is a naturally occurring form of American holly that has yellow berries. ‘Canary’ is a cultivar selection of this that produces lots of yellow fruit instead of the expected red.

is a naturally occurring form of American holly that has yellow berries. ‘Canary’ is a cultivar selection of this that produces lots of yellow fruit instead of the expected red.

If you want to grow your own Christmas tradition, consider America holly. Check with your local nursery to see which cultivars they carry.

Are holly berries are poisonous? Yes the berries are poisonous, but are not considered extremely toxic unless eaten in quantity. However, because they are poisonous they should be considered dangerous to small children.

Are English hollies a noxious weed? English holly has been planted commercially in the Pacific Northwest for decorative floral uses. While it’s not yet classified as a noxious weed on the Washington State Noxious Weed List, it has become a serous concern in natural areas, mostly in western Washington counties. The English holly, spread by birds feeding on the berries, has become naturalized and forms dense thickets, suppressing the growth and germination of native tree and shrub species. Restoration of native areas includes removal of English holly that has become established. Instead of planting English holly, consider planting Merserve hybrid hollies, such as ‘Berry Magic.’ ‘China Boy’, ‘China Girl,’ ‘Blue Boy’, ‘Blue Girl,’ ‘Blue Prince’, ‘Blue Princess,’ and Ebony Magic‘. These all are more dense than English holly and only 15 to 18 feet in height. Do not plant them in full sun.

Published: 12/17/2008 1:24 PM


written by
Marianne C. Ophardt
WSU Extension Faculty
for the Tri-City Herald, Kennewick, WA
Christmas cactus is an old-fashioned houseplant that’s still popular with gardeners today. Christmas cactus is only one of the types of similar-looking holiday cacti. There is a Thanksgiving cactus, a Christmas cactus and an Ester cactus. These closely related cousins are different species of the Schlum-bergera and Hatiora genera of cactus. The Thanksgiving cactus (Schlum-bergera bridgesii) and the Christmas cactus (Schlum-gergera) are members of the Schlum-bera genus. Many holiday cacti sold today are hybrids between these species. While closely related, the Easter cactus (Hatiora gaertneri) is in a different genus.

So what’s the difference between these three? Not much. All are native to the mountain forest areas in Brazil. They are epiphytes, which means they live on the surfaces of trees, getting their nutrition and moisture from the decaying organic matter and water caught in tree branch crotches. They don’t have leaves, but instead consist of green flattened stem segments (areoles).

However, each species is a little different from the others. The Thanksgiving cactus has sharp-toothed edges on its stem segments, the stems themselves point upward, and the natural flowering period is from Thanksgiving through Christmas. Flower colors include red, white, lavender and salmon. The projections along the edges of the Christmas cactus’s segments are rounded and the stems are more arching. Pinkish red flowers are produced from late December until March. The Easter cactus has segments that are a little fatter with a slightly wavy edge. It flowers from March through May with red or pink flowers.

Holiday cacti are easy to grow, but they are not a ‘dry’ plant like many other cacti. Use a well-aerated, well-drained potting mix and keep them slightly moist.

Watering should be cut back some during the late fall and winter months. This provide for a dormant period necessary before flowering. Give the plants lots of light. They’ll benefit from full sun during the winter months, but should be kept out of direct summer sun.

Probably the most difficult part of growing holiday cacti is getting them to bloom reliably. Their flowering is triggered by day length. Flowering for Thanksgiving and Christmas cacti is initiated by short days and cool temperatures. If provided with artificial light at night and normal room temperatures, they may not bloom at all. To encourage bloom, place the plant in a room where artificial light isn’t used at night, such as a spare bedroom or storeroom where the temperature is between 55 and 65 degrees. (The Easter cactus blooms in response to normal day length and cool temperatures.)

Plants must still receive plenty of light during the day. Once little flower buds are noticeable, the short-day treatments can be stopped. It’s also helpful to know that holiday cacti bloom best when somewhat pot-bound.

Given the right care, holiday cactus has been known to become family heirlooms. If you don’t have one in your family, you might want to start the tradition!

Holiday cactus problems:
•Bud/blossom drop occurs when the air is too warm and dry, the plant is subjected to abrupt changes in light or temperature, or if the soil is kept too dry.
•Pale growth in summer is the result of too much sunlight.
•Stems become flaccid, wrinkled and limp because of poor drainage and root rot caused by too much water and too little air.

Published: 12/22/2007 2:25 PM


written by Marianne C. Ophardt WSU Extension Faculty for the Tri-City Herald, Kennewick, WA Aren’t they all pines? What’s the difference? I’ve been known to be fussy when it comes to picking out a Christmas tree. No, I’m not looking for ‘the’ perfectly shaped tree, but I do know what I want when I go looking for a real tree. I want something that’s fresh and holds its needles when it starts to dry out. My quest for the perfect tree is trying to find the right type and size of tree, not the best shaped tree that has no imperfections. One of my favorite types of tree is the noble fir (Abies procera Rehd.) This popular, but usually expensive type of Christmas tree, is a beauty with it’s silvery blue-green needles that twist upwards giving the bottom of the twigs and branches a somewhat flattened appearance. In addition to being quite beautiful, the noble fir keeps its needles for a long time. I especially like it because the stiff branches take the weight of heavy ornaments without drooping and have enough space between them for displaying large ornaments. Keys to identifying this tree are the 4-sided, one to two long needles with two white stripes on the underside along with one to two rows on the top. As with all true firs, the needles are attached directly to the twigs. This results in a smooth twig when needles drop or are removed. Another characteristic of true firs are the rounded waxy buds. The bark on the trunk is smooth and has numerous resin blisters. My very favorite type of Christmas tree is the eastern white pine (Pinus strobus). Unfortunately, it’s not readily available on the Pacific Northwest. This tree was at the top of my list when I lived in New York state, but alas it’s grown predominantly in the eastern U.S. and is not usually found here. That’s too bad because it’s a beauty with a delicate, finely textured appearance. Along with other pines, it’s long keeping and seldom drops its needles. The key to identifying this tree are the blue-green 2.5 to 5 inch long flexible needles arranged in bundles of five. While not one of my top favorites, Scotch pine (Pinus sylvestris) is an excellent Christmas tree. It has great needle retention and stays fresh for three to four weeks if supplied with water. It’s short (one to three inch) stiff green to blue-green needles in bundles of two to three are the key to identification. It does not have the soft look of the white pine and is usually sheered to be very dense and bushy. A great runner-up for my favorite type of Christmas tree is the Douglas fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii). It’s also the most popular type of tree in the county, including the Hawaiian Islands and Guam. It’s even exported to parts of Asia. Despite its name, it’s not a ‘true’ fir. It’s branches are spreading and drooping, not always the best for loading with heavy ornaments. Keys to identifying this tree are the dark green to blue-green soft 1 to 11/2 inch long flat needles without any white or silvery banding. The needles are arranged all around the twigs and branches and have a woodsy fragrance when crushed. The elongated reddish brown buds have sharp, pointed ends. Unlike the true firs with needles that are attached directly to the twig, the Douglas fir needles have little stems. A needle-less twig is a little rough. One tree that I try to avoid is blue spruce (Picea pungens) or any other spruce. That’s because spruces tend to drop their needles in warm rooms. Plus the one-half to one inch needles are very sharp and stiff (ouch!) However, the twigs are stiff enough to support heavy ornaments and the tree has a pleasant woodsy odor. The keys to identification are the very sharp, stiff needles and the very rough twig left behind if needles drop or are removed. Keeping Your Tree Fresh Whatever your favorite type of tree, here are some tips on selecting a fresh one and keeping it in good condition as long as possible. Select a fresh tree, one with healthy green flexible needles that aren’t dropping off. Tap the tree on the ground. Only the older inner brown needles should drop off. If a lot of green needles drop too, look for another tree. If you don’t plan to put the tree up right away when you get home, cut one to two inches off the butt end and place it in a bucket of warm water. Store the tree in a protected spot. Repeat the same process when you go to take it indoors and place it in its stand. No special additive needs to be added to the water to keep the tree fresh. Start out with a clean stand and add warm, fresh water. Research has shown that any additives, commercial or home concoctions, don’t provide any benefits to tree freshness and longevity. Don’t allow the water level to drop below the bottom of the tree. Use smaller, cooler lights on your tree. Keep the room comfortably cool and don’t place the tree where it will be subject to heat from vents, wood stoves, or appliances. Following these tips, should provide you with a tree that lasts several weeks or more. Once your tree starts to dry out, it becomes a fire hazard. Take it down and remove it. Don’t forget to recycle it.

Published: 12/1/2007 2:27 PM

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