Love ’em or hate ’em, it’s hard to escape pyramids of iconic poinsettia plants this time of year. The seasonal red-petaled plant even has its own national holiday, celebrated each December 12, the day that the man who first brought the plants from Mexico to the United States, Joel Robert Poinsett, died.
Though the plant’s green and red color scheme is clearly a factor, there doesn’t seem to be any clear connection between poinsettias and Christmas aside from an oft-repeated, but unattributed, Mexican folk story about a girl placing leaves at the feet of the Virgin Mary at a Christmas Eve service, at which time the weeds burst into a brilliant red. In reality, poinsettias have been around since the time of the Aztecs—long before Christianity came to the shores of their native Mexico—when they were used for medicinal purposes and for red dye.
The most common misconception about these plants is that they’re poisonous to pets, which isn’t true, says Therese Ciesinski, managing editor of Organic Gardening magazine. “Their toxicity has been way overblown,” she says. “Their stems emit a bitter sap, which is toxic in quantity, but it tastes so nasty that most pets wouldn’t take more than one lick.” Fans of the poinsettia plant can follow our advice for keeping this year’s plants healthy—and prepped to bloom next season.
Read on to find out more about some festive alternatives if you’re not a poinsettia person.
More elegant, but just as brightly colored as poinsettia plants, amaryllis are tropical species that can be kept healthy year after year if you take care of them properly. And the different varieties come in all sorts of colors—pinks and oranges in addition to traditional white and red flowers. Amaryllis can be expensive if you buy flowering plants at a nursery, but you can also grow them inside in containers, even during cold winter months, a bonus considering that it’s hard to find organically grown houseplants in stores. See our amaryllis page for suggestions.
The houseplants second on Ciesinski's poinsettia-alternative list are paperwhites. Their fragrant white flowers resemble daffodils, not surprising since they belong to the same species. One complaint about this plant is that the flowers can grow too tall and become top-heavy, causing the container to topple over. So researchers at the Cornell University Flowerbulb Research Program came up with a solution: Plant paperwhite bulbs in the traditional gravel-and-water mix, and after they begin to show roots, pour out the water and replace it with a mixture of water and 4 to 6 percent alcohol (vodka or gin will do). By “pickling your paperwhites,” you'll reduce their growth by a third and prevent toppling.
Perhaps the ultimate Christmas houseplant, ornamental peppers (Capsicum annuum) have dark green, waxy leaves with little flowering peppers that look like Christmas-tree lights. The peppers usually start out green then change from to white to purple to orange to red, and often all of the colors are present on a single plant. The more light the plants receive, the more colorful they become. Just beware: Though the peppers are edible, they’re very hot, so keep pets and kids from eating them.
Norfolk Island Pine
These may not bear any flowers—or have any resemblance to your traditional poinsettia plants—but Norfolk Island pines are becoming increasingly popular holiday houseplants. One reason is that they look a bit like small Christmas trees and can even be decorated with light ornaments and tiny light strings (regular ornaments are too heavy for their branches), making them perfect for apartment dwellers and people who don't like the thought of chopping down real trees or buying plastic fake ones. “They are indeed beautiful, and make great Christmas trees,” says Ciesinski, adding that they’re also easy to take care of. However, these trees can grow to 100 feet in their native island habitat, so the houseplant variety, which can reach 12 feet, usually has to be thrown out (and, ideally, composted or mulched) once it’s too big for your dwelling, she says. You can try replanting them outdoors if you live in a warm climate, Ciesinski notes, but they aren't hardy enough for most U.S. regions.
Want more holiday houseplant options? Other great choices include the Christmas cactus, miniature roses, azaleas, and cyclamen, all of which are easy to find in your local nursery or garden center.