I am going to just come out and admit it, I love poinsettias. I love everything about them. I know they are virtually impossible to grow. I know they are currently in the doldrums of horticultural fashion – “a crime against good taste”, most of my gardening colleagues tell me. Yet to me the childhood memories I associate with their scarlet, holly-shaped bracts get me every time: an instant flashback to my uncle Joe’s barbeque turkey and unwrapping presents beneath a plastic tree when I was a kid in tropical Singapore.
However, as a seasonal winter houseplant in the rather more chilly UK, there are many often overlooked options that just might offer newbies a more practical, maybe even rewarding, alternative. In fact, any of the traditional Christmas favourites, from cyclamen and azaleas to hippeastrums and Christmas cacti will be easier to grow.
This is because poinsettia is a subtropical plant from the wilds of Mexico and very sensitive to cold draughts – such as those in chilly rooms or the icy outdoor florist stands and market stalls from which they are often sold – which can cause their leaves to blacken.
They also hate the dramatic fluctuations in temperature when you bring them in from the cold. They aren’t even particular fans of hot, dry rooms either, as created by modern central heating, which may make them lose their leaves.
If you can avoid all of these factors, you are doing better than me! This leaf shedding might be problematic, too, as their foliage (although not highly toxic as is often claimed) does contain chemical irritants. Perhaps something to avoid if you have kids and pets running around, or maybe keep them off the dining table.
If you are after an easier seasonal houseplant to brighten up your home, pick a citrus or a jasmine. Both will handle chilly temperatures and (paradoxically) warm rooms far better. They are also non-irritant. If you are a good-taste snob, their glossy, dark green leaves and delicate white flowers are failsafe and will work in any decor.
Pick a calamondin orange and your little tree will come studded with tiny mandarin-like fruit, too. Unlike poinsettias, both can live for decades (not mere days) if treated well. Just remember to plant the jasmine outdoors come spring. But for me what really sets both these species apart from all others is the fresh, uplifting scent of their blossom.
They are traditionally believed to have relaxant properties, and there is even a growing body of scientific evidence to suggest that the constituents of these flowers can indeed help calm feelings of anxiety and improve mood. Something that might just come in handy when the relatives arrive.