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Thursday, Nov. 13, 2003 02:20 pm

It’s beginning to look a lot like holiday-plant-buying time

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The holidays are fast approaching, and poinsettias no doubt again will be the most popular seasonal houseplant sold in the United States. There's good reason: With their rich colors and variety, poinsettias add a festive touch to any home.

In addition to the traditional red bracts (modified leaves), poinsettias are available in white, pink, peach, and yellow. Some varieties are marbled or speckled. To ensure long-lasting beauty, select poinsettias with an abundance of dark, green foliage all the way down the stem. Make sure the stems are stiff and the leaves and bracts aren't drooping. (For more tips and information, check the U. of I. poinsettia page at www.urbanext.uiuc.edu/poinsettia/index.html)

In addition to poinsettias, here are a few other popular holiday plants:

• Norfolk Island Pine. A great year-round houseplant, if kept in a medium-to-bright location. In its natural habitat, this tropical evergreen can reach 200 feet; indoors, it will probably only grown to a height of six feet. If you want to avoid a mess of pine needles, decorate with lightweight ornaments and miniature lights.

• Azaleas. Plants in full bloom in the store may be more attractive, but you'll get more enjoyment out of your azalea if you buy it with most of its flowers still in bud. At home, keep the plants in a cool spot and don't allow the plant to wilt or dry out. Florist azaleas are not winter hardy here and are tough to keep year after year.

• Cyclamen. An attractive plant, cyclamen have white, red or pink flowers and heart-shaped, dark green leaves with silver marbling. Taking care of them after the holiday season is challenging: under average household conditions, they often prove difficult to grow.

• Cacti. Christmas Cactus (scalloped leaf edges) and Thanksgiving Cactus (toothed leaf edges) are some of the most durable flowering potted plants. They are available with pink, white, red, violet or orange flowers. Plants should be kept evenly moist while in flower. High temperatures or excessively dry soil will cause the flowers to wilt and drop off.

As with most holiday purchases, shop early to ensure the best selection and getting the plant of your choice. Purchase clean, healthy plants that are properly identified. Plants should have dark green foliage and lots of unopened flower buds or fruit. Avoid subjecting plants to freezing temperatures by carefully wrapping plants before transporting them outside.

Holiday plant tips

These guidelines will help you keep your plants healthy through the holidays:

Remove or punch holes in the bottom of any decorative foil that surrounds the container holding a plant. That'll allow water to drain, protecting the plant from getting excessively moist and developing root rot.

Keep the soil evenly moist: Avoid allowing plants to dry out completely or remain soggy. When the soil surface feels dry to the touch, water the plants thoroughly; that is, until the water seeps out of the drainage holes. Drain any excess water.

Most holiday plants prefer a site where they will receive as much natural light as possible; bright, indirect light is preferred. Plants may be placed in windows but do not allow the plant to touch the window panes.

Keep plants free from drafts and heat sources such as appliances, fireplaces or ventilating ducts. Most plants will perform best when the daytime temperature is between 60 and 65 degrees Fahrenheit (avoid exceeding 70 degrees) and nighttime temperature is between 50 to 60 degrees.

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