Christmas Plants Too Good to be True

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Artificially colored poinsettias

Plant growers have long used different artifices to make Christmas plants more attractive  and therefore saleable – ribbons, tinsel, colorful pot covers, etc. – and there is nothing wrong with that. After all, it’s perfectly clear that they’re decorative effects and not the plant itself.

But other decorative effects are less convivial. In my opinion, a line is crossed when you present a living plant under false pretenses, when you make customers believe it is something other than it really is or suggest it will do something it probably won’t. It really bothers me to see gardeners getting ripped off.

This sort of thing happens all year, but really comes to a head at Christmastime, when some growers seem to stop at nothing to get you to buy their plants. Here are some examples of plant rip-offs you’ll probably run into when you do your Christmas shopping.

Poinsettias, anthuriums and orchids tinted or injected with brilliant colors

You now frequently see all the above plants with flowers in impossible shades of blue, purple, orange, fluorescent green, etc. Maybe serious gardeners may know these are not their real colors, but beginners sure don’t… although when the grower goes so far as to add glitter to the petals like some sort of floral fairy dust, I figure most people probably figure the plant didn’t produce that on its own.

The point could be made that this is really fairly harmless, that coloring its flowers doesn’t really hurt the plant, that few people keep these plants long enough to see them rebloom and thus to experience the disappointment of discovering their blue orchid, to give just one example, is really a white one, but you’d be surprised. I get email all the time from people who want to know whether the white bracts of their poinsettia will turn blue again in time for Christmas, what fertilizer to give to bring back the original color to their fluorescent orange phalaenopsis or why the blue “skin” is flaking off their anthurium flower revealing a red flower underneath.

Live holly decorated with fake berries

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Fake holly berries designed to be added to living holly plants.

Take a careful look at most potted hollies (Ilex) sold for the holiday season. What look like bright red berries are almost always fake, usually made of a ball of wax or plastic on a wire wrapped around the plant’s stem.

This is a boon for growers, because hollies usually take several years to produce berries, but with fake fruits, growers don’t have to wait: they can sell the plant the first year.

In addition, since only female hollies produce fruit, that could limit sales, as male plants are less decorative, but with artificial berries, the grower doesn’t need to know the sex of the plant: you can put fake berries on both male and female plants.

Moreover, the plant that is sold to you as a holly is often not even a real holly (Ilex), but a false-holly (Osmanthus heterophyllus), a plant that normally doesn’t produce berries at all. But it sure looks like holly when you add wax berries!

Any gardener worth his salt well tell you it’s important to know which plant you’re buying (holly or false-holly) as both need very different care (holly will need to be transitioned to outdoors, while the false-holly has to be treated as a houseplant in most regions). And you need to know the sex of your true holly to plan where to put it in your garden. (Female plants in visible spots, male plants out-of-the-way, but still there to pollinate the females). Good luck finding that out when you buy a “Christmas holly”.

Amaryllis (Hippeastrum) bulbs dipped in colored wax

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Dipped in coloured wax, this amaryllis bulb is actually dying.

What a cute idea! There’s this big colorful bulb (red, green, gold, silver, etc.) that is a decoration in of itself, plus it will produce a giant flower. On top of that, the seller proudly announces “no need to water”! What’s not to like?

But no one tells you the bulb is dying when you buy it. Its roots were removed and its basal plate was cut off so it will never be able to produce replacement roots. Plus under the colorful wax coating, fungus is already eating away at the bulb, sight unseen.

The bloom to come is actually the plant’s last hurrah, a reflex on its part. When it senses it is dying, the poor plant will try to flower and produce seeds in order to ensure at least its babies will survive. Unfortunately, it will be dead before any seeds mature.

And no, you don’t need to water a dying amaryllis because it’s living off its reserves. Besides, you can’t water it: it has no roots.

Isn’t it amazing that a grower could sell you a dying plant at far more than the cost of a living amaryllis bulb… and make it sound like a good thing?

Living Christmas trees.

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Spruce sold as a Christmas tree.

The grower sells them as “more ecological than a cut tree”, so you feel you ought to make the greenest choice possible. But there probably isn’t one “living Christmas tree” in 10 that’s still alive a year later. And a dead rooted tree is less ecological than a cut one, in so many ways.

There are lots of problems here, but the main one is that the tree offered is usually a spruce or a pine, usually a species from a cold climate. It doesn’t adapt at all well to being dragged indoors for the holidays (you’re told to keep it in a “cool place”, but come on! Are you really going to set up your family’s Christmas tree in the garage?). It really shouldn’t stay indoors more than 4 days, 7 if you barely heat your living room, or it will lose the winter hardiness it built up over the fall. And if it does and you stick your “hardy” Christmas tree outdoors in cold weather, it’ll be killed. Where I live, too, you couldn’t plant a Christmas tree outdoors in January anyway: the ground will be frozen.

And is the tree sold even adapted to your climate? My local supermarket had two living Christmas trees the last time I looked. Unlabelled, true, but I recognized them. There were  balsam fir (that would work for me, as it’s cold hardy and I live in a cold climate) and Italian stone pine (zone 8). Nope, that one won’t work, but no one in the store would have known enough about conifers to warn potential buyers.

Finally, do you really want a giant conifer in your yard, because that’s what these living trees will grow into… if ever you do manage to keep one alive.

There are a few living Christmas trees that make good houseplants and they would make a decent choice for an indoor holiday tree. I’ll be writing about them soon.

Spray-painted succulents.

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Who’d have ever thought people would buy spray-painted succulents… but they do!

Wow! These plants really stand out from the crowd, what with their leaves in colors Mother Nature certainly never intended. But painting their leaves blocks their ability to carry out photosynthesis. And plants get all their energy from photosynthesis!

Most spray-painted succulents hang on a few months, living off their reserves, then die.

Some do manage to produce new, healthy growth and “outgrow” the paint, but they then look ridiculous (screaming magenta or cobalt blue on the bottom, green on the top: you have to admit that’s a bit garish!). If you want a decent looking plant, you’ll have to chop off the top and root it, in which case it will look like a normal succulent — which is what you should have bought in the first place!

Cacti decorated with dried flowers.

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None of these flowers are real.

It’s one of the oldest tricks in the horticultural book, but it still works just as well to stimulate sales. After all, who wouldn’t pick a cactus with flowers on it over a cactus without blooms? But the problem is, those aren’t cactus flowers. They’re everlastings: dried and usually tinted flowers glued onto the cactus’ stem (yes, with real glue). Often the plant is left permanently scarred by that treatment.

Any serious gardener would prefer to buy a healthy cactus without fake blooms. Either learn to love it for its fabulous natural appearance or give it the conditions it needs to produce its own flowers. Save the dried blooms for flower arranging!


There you go, gardeners, be careful when shopping for Christmas plants: it is so easy to get taken for a ride!

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