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For Christmas, a festive plant that deer won't eat

Saturday - 12/21/2013, 5:28pm  ET

hellebore.jpg
The ''Christmas Rose'' is not a rose but a hellebore -- cold-hardy, shade-tolerant perennials that deer and Evil Squirrels don't bother because they're toxic. (Thinkstock)

The best Christmas gift for gardeners

Mike McGrath, WTOP's Friday Yard Warrior

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The "Christmas Rose" - a festive plant that deer don't eat

Loyal listener Leon just emailed to say he looked for some "Christmas Rose" plants for his garden and scored big at the holiday plant display at a local supermarket. "All three plants are in full flower" he writes. "Should I plant them outside right after the holidays? If not, what's the best way to keep them healthy inside until spring?"

Like the "Lenten Rose," the "Christmas Rose" is not a rose but a hellebore -- cold-hardy, shade-tolerant perennial that deer and evil squirrels don't bother because they're toxic. As their common names suggest, hellebores are among the first plants to flower in the garden, often blooming in winter -- at least when they've been well-established and growing out there for a while.

"Forced" plants like these and other holiday bloomers should stay indoors in bright light until spring. Don't feed them while they're inside and water them very lightly. The only thing that can kill a hellebore is over-watering.

So, be sure to remove any holiday wrappings before you water. When the soil is saturated, you can replace the wrappings if you must, but ditch that plant-killing decorative foil as soon as the holidays are over.

Okay, so it Isn't a rose and it doesn't bloom in Decemberů

Looking for a last-minute gift for a gardener? Perhaps a gardener blessed with abundant shade and frequent visits from those ravenous white-tailed stomachs-on-legs that we gardeners don't hold "dear?"

Then consider picking up a few Helleborus niger plants, otherwise known as "the Christmas Rose" because early botanists confused the first hellebores they saw with wild roses and this specific species would often bloom on "Christmas" (a least the pre-Gregorian calendar Christmas that fell on Jan. 6).

Nevertheless, Hellebores really do bloom early -- often in the winter. They perennialize well in the garden and aren't bothered by any kind of woeful wildlife thanks to their inherent toxicity. Even handling the plants without gloves can cause a rash, so be careful.

I've been seeing lots of really nice ones in bloom at garden centers and upscale supermarkets this holiday season. Keep these forced plants inside until spring, then plant them outdoors in dappled shade in a spot that drains well.

That last part is important; the only thing that can kill a hellebore is "wet feet."

Holiday plant care -- after the holidays

Holiday plants make great gifts, but what are you supposed to do with them after the holidays?

Poinsettias, rosemary trees, amaryllis and hellebores like "the Christmas Rose" can all be kept alive with a little effort; we'll provide some basic details below.

Although it's a popular "alternative Christmas tree," the Norfolk Pine is a houseplant that needs to stay indoors -- at least anytime the outside temps drop below 60 degrees. It's from Norfolk Island, near Australia, not the Norfolk in Virginia.

The only holiday plant that's really a "once and done" deal is the paperwhite. Although technically in the Narcissus family (whose most famous member is the spring-blooming daffodil), paperwhites are finicky plants that are difficult for even experts to work with more than once. And they'll absolutely never bloom again if they were first forced in the traditional water and pebbles.

OK -- promised plant care tips:

  • Poinsettias: Ditch the wrapping, water lightly, place in bright light and then move outside long after all chance of frost has passed. If you want to keep its (unnatural) shape, prune it back over the summer. Whatever you do, bring it back inside long before nights get really chilly. If you want the center to color up red again, it has to have 12 hours of bright light and 12 hours of darkness every day for three months. Good luck to you there.

  • Rosemary trees: Repot into bigger containers ASAP. Water lightly. Plant (or move) outdoors into full sun in early spring. Very cold hardy.

  • Hellebores (the Christmas Rose): Water lightly; indirect but bright light. Plant outside in Spring in a well-drained area that gets some shade. Very cold hardy.

  • Amaryllis: Clip off the faded flowers but do NOT remove the green leaves. Feed gently after the flowers fade, give the plant good light and move it outside in the summer. After the leaves turn brown, move it indoors to a cool dark area for three months; no food, no water. Then begin watering again and move it into bright light.

Choose your gifts for gardeners wisely

Last-minute gift time! Holiday plants are always nice -- if you choose wisely and according to the giftee's physical layout.

If they live in an apartment or otherwise have no outdoor space, choose something that's meant to stay indoors -- like a Christmas cactus, Norfolk pine or blooming amaryllis.

If they do have an actual garden, consider plants they can enjoy outdoors, like the "Christmas Rose" or one of those fragrant rosemary trees.

Don't want to risk making a wrong choice? A gift certificate for seeds, plants and supplies allows them to choose. If there isn't a nice garden center nearby to supply this promise of springtime goodies, the Burpee seed catalog just announced a festive special deal: 20 percent off their e-gift cards through Christmas Eve -- you'll save a little money and they'll deliver the good news electronically

Click here for more information and enter the special discount code "EGIFT13."

Live Tree? Try to keep it that way!

Tick, tick, tick! If you're planning on putting a truly live (balled and burlaped) Christmas tree in the ground, take advantage of the ridiculously warm out-of-season weather this weekend and dig the planting hole if you haven't already.

Keep the tree indoors as short a time as possible in the coolest location possible -- and no hot incandescent lights. Then harden it off by moving it outdoors gradually, and choose a final resting place -- eh, planting spot; I meant planting spot -- that drains well, gets full sun and isn't too close to the house or other structures. Because if it doesn't die, its "skirt" will grow very wide.

Remove and discard all wrappings. Plant high, not low. (You want to see the root flare above ground, not a lollipop!) Water after planting by letting a hose drip at the base for several hours; and continue to water during dry times afterwards, including winter, Spring and especially summer.

And speaking of water -- keep the reservoir underneath your cut Christmas trees nice and full; because if that water holder dries out completely, you'll need to start wearing chain-mail socks!

I'm your ghost of Christmas plants Mike McGrath, wishing you a safe and happy holiday, and only sulfur-free coal in your stocking.

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