Houseplants make a wonderful gift for Christmas and provide a festive touch to a home. There's a great range to choose from and if properly cared for they can outlive cut flowers. By following a few simple guidelines with each type, you should be able to get weeks, if not months, of value from each plant.
When purchasing, don't be afraid to ask for help, especially if you're a first-timer with indoor plants. In a nutshell, there are just a few rules: keep your plants cosy, avoid cold water when watering and avoid extremes when it comes to temperature and moisture.
CYCLAMEN Cyclamen come in a rainbow of colours. The most common for Christmas are red and white, and some shades of pink. The secret to growing cyclamen is to always water them from the base because watering from the top can allow water to collect where the foliage joins the corm, causing the top to rot and the plant to collapse.
Cyclamen appreciate a bright spot out of direct sunlight, in a warm, not overly hot room. As with most houseplants, the golden rule is to avoid a cold draught. It's important with Christmas plants to avoid heat sources, such as radiators, as a high temperature can cause stress to the plant.
AZALEA Azaleas are one of the easiest Christmas indoor plants to keep. Watering is crucial, yet simple. All you have to do is ensure that it's constantly in one to two inches of water to prevent it drying out.
When the azalea has finished flowering, remove the dead flower heads. At the beginning of March you can repot it. Make sure to use a lime-free potting compost.
The azalea that we grow as an indoor plant is the indica and, unlike azaleas and rhododendrons grown outside, it's not happy in a cold spot. If a room is comfortably warm for you, it will be ideal for an azalea. If, for some reason, the azalea dries out, stand it in a basin of water for about 20 minutes and allow it to take up water from the base, before standing it back into its container, where it should have a small reservoir to draw on.
AMARYLLIS Properly known as hippeastrum, the amaryllis is a popular plant at this time of year. You can buy the big bulbs in garden centres, and, if placed in a warm, bright room and kept evenly moist, they will flower within four to five weeks. The colours range from scarlet red to apple-blossom pink, white and variations on these colours.
After flowering, the dead flower should be removed and the plant should be fed, encouraging it to build up flowering energy for next year. In summer, lie the plant on its side under a bench in the greenhouse or in the garden shed to allow the foliage to die back into the bulb. It will be ready to start all over again next autumn.
CHRISTMAS CACTUS The key here is to avoid moving the plant around when it comes into bud because this can cause a shock that results in the buds and flowers dropping off. You need to find a bright, sheltered spot inside, that's not too warm and not getting direct sunlight.
These particular type of cacti are also unhappy being dried out. It needs to get the right balance of moisture -- not too wet and not too dry. Cacti cannot withstand long periods of drought.
CHRISTMAS TREES The Irish market has become more sophisticated when it comes to buying your Christmas tree. There's a wider range available, and the saying 'you get what you pay for' is very true when it comes to buying a tree.
Some places offer living Christmas trees growing in pots. These are fine if the room is bright and cool, and would work in a hallway or an unheated conservatory.
For indoors, where there's central heating or a room is kept cosy by a fire, it's important to make sure that the tree is kept well away from the heat source, and it will dehydrate very quickly.
If it's a cut tree, some places sell stands which have a reservoir in the base for holding water. They cost a little extra but will keep your tree fresh for much longer than the Christmas period.
The two most likely trees you'll come across are the noble fir (the most popular because of its distinctive looking needles) and the nordman fir, which is good at retaining its needles. It's difficult to find a substitute for the wonderful Christmas fragrance a tree can add to a room.
All plants for the photoshoot were kindly supplied by Powerscourt Garden, Powerscourt estate, Co Wicklow, 01 204-6014. There will be a floral demonstration by Carol Bone on Wednesday, December 1, on how to decorate your home for Christmas. There are special offers on orchids and mini cyclamen.