Top 5 Non-Traditional Christmas Plants Worth A Second Look
Gaulteria procumbens - Wintergreen
Each year as Christmas approaches, we begin to see the traditional flowering plants arrive in our local garden centers. Traditional plants such as poinsettias, Christmas cacti, narcissi, and amaryllis; ready to be taken home to brighten our décor and enjoyed over the holiday season. Some of the lesser- known Christmas plants that are available take a back seat to these more colorful selections but are special if you provide a little imagination, decoration, and lights. Some have beautiful red or pink berries while others mimic holly and provide interesting color and texture to a mixed basket or arrangement.
Goshiki Osmanthus (Osmanthus heterophyllus ‘Goshiki’) – Zone 6-9
Goshiki Osmanthus is actually a bushy evergreen shrub whose name means ‘five colors’ in Japanese.
As you can see it bears a striking resemblance to holly and has the common name Variegated False Holly. The new growth is a reddish-pink tone which quickly becomes yellow/cream and then turns to dark green. The green leaves are daubed with spots of creamy white, grey green and yellow green.
This tough plant makes an interesting container plant; put outside in the sun in spring after all danger of frost is past and return it to a bright location in the house in fall. It is one of the few plants that can tolerate full sun for six hours plus indoors or out. Goshiki will eventually reach a mature size indoors of 3-5’ in height by 4’ in width! It is a slow grower, reaching its mature height and width in ten years or more. It can be kept small by pruning the tips back to shape in spring to encourage bushiness.
Keep this plant moist but never soggy. Do not let it dry out. Check for water needs daily but it may not need watering daily. Fertilize in spring and late summer with an all-purpose evergreen fertilizer.
Goshiki Osmanthus likes a rich, moist, well- drained peaty soil. Repot when you see roots coming out of the pot’s drain holes – preferably in spring. Do not fertilize until the plant has rooted – which may take a few weeks.
Goshiki take years to flower and when it does the flowers are insignificant but smell wonderful! It does not bloom until fall followed by tiny berries.
It is disease, insect, and deer resistant and is propagated by semi-hardwood cuttings.
Use this plant in mixed gift baskets, on the mantle with other live greens or in a festive decorative pot on its own.
Norfolk Pine (Araucaria heterophylla)
Norfolk Pine is a fun tropical plant to decorate and light up to fill small spaces. They resemble a Christmas tree but are not a true pine. It is native to Norfolk Island which is east of Australia. Many of the plants on this island are not found anywhere else in the world! In the wild this tropical plant will grow to 200’ plus in height and stand for 150 years. In our homes they can reach heights of four to nine feet. You may eventually need to stake it.
Place your Norfolk Pine in bright light and provide extra humidity. Mist with distilled water. Keep it away from heat registers and cold drafts. Turn the pot occasionally to prevent it from leaning toward the light.
Repot in spring every two years or more using a peat-based soil mixed with a cacti-succulent soil. Fertilize every 3 weeks in spring and summer with an all-purpose houseplant fertilizer. Norfolk Pines are very salt tolerant.
Keep the soil damp, but not soggy. Never let your Norfolk Pine sit in water.
Water when the top inch or two of soil is dry.
The odd brown branch appearing lower on a Norfolk Pine is normal. Just remove the branch. If brown branches appear higher in the tree or if there is a lot of browning the tree may not be getting enough humidity or it is being over or underwatered. This can also be due to cold or hot drafts. Yellow needles are due to too little or too much sun. Extreme changes in temperature will also cause yellowing. If needles are dropping it may be due to too much water or not enough light.
FYI – Branches that brown will not grow back.
Generally, pest and disease free. The Norfolk Pine will produce cones: female trees after 15 years and male trees at 40 years or older.
Lemon Cypress (Cupressus macrocarpa)
Lemon Cypress is a delicate looking yellow green evergreen that exudes a lemony scent when you rub the needles. It is native to California so in our climate it is grown as an indoor houseplant.
Lemon Cypress should be grown in a room that receives direct sunlight for 3-4 hours per day. It likes extra humidity so provide a pebble tray below the pot and mist regularly. Water when the top two inches of soil is dry and water until the water runs out the drain holes at the bottom of the pot. Throw out any excess water that accumulates in the tray.
If this plant is allowed to dry right out, it will become dry and crunchy. It will not come back. Keep it away from hot and cold drafts. A cooler room is preferable though as it will not tolerate a hot environment.
At maturity the Lemon Cypress will reach between three and six feet tall, depending on the variety. This will take quite a few years as it is a slow grower.
Wait until spring to repot your plant. Use a pot that is only 2 inches larger in diameter and has drainage holes. Cypress is not fussy as to soil, only that it be a fast- draining mix. Be sure to water your cypress well before repotting. Once repotted you will not need to repot again for three to four years.
Lemon Cypress are not heavy feeders and should be fertilized only once in spring with an evergreen fertilizer or a water-soluble houseplant fertilizer such as 20-20-20.
Pruning to shape should be done in spring and summer only.
Propagation is from tip cuttings taken from young stems in spring and summer.
Decorate three of these beautiful evergreens with tiny mini lights and berries; insert each tree in a red ceramic pot and line them up in the centre of your table. Voila, you have a easy table centre that is very chic and classy.
Winter Splash Wintergreen ( Gaultheria procumbens ‘Winter Splash’)
This variegated white, green, and pink plant is native to North America and hardy to our Zone 3! It has reddish brown stems which feature exfoliating bark. (This is normal) Wintergreen is classified as a groundcover with a mature height of 20-25 cm. tall and 1.21-1.83 spread. Yes, that is per plant!
Deer, rabbits, and other small wild animals love the berries.
This rapid grower does the best in an acidic peat-based soil. Flowers are small, white, and bell-shaped. Wintergreen is self fertile. The leaves taste like wintergreen candy, but I would advise not to feed them to children, dogs or cats.
Winter Splash can be overwintered inside until all danger of frost has passed in the spring. Plant it in a location that receives bright light or dappled light but not direct sun. It is not bothered by pests or diseases!
This variegated wintergreen shows its best colors indoors in a well- lit location. Keep evenly moist and make sure the pot has good drainage. When spring arrives fertilize with an evergreen fertilizer at half the recommended strength. If you are planting it outdoors do not fertilize again until two weeks after planting and at half the recommended strength.
Winter Splash Wintergreen is a bright addition to any mixed live Christmas basket or featured on their own with a candle centrepiece on a bed of sphagnum moss.
Dwarf Alberta Spruce (Picea glauca ‘Conica’)
Dwarf Alberta Spruce is another evergreen that can be enjoyed at Christmas, then planted outside in spring (Zones 2-8). It does best in a climate with very cold winters and cool summers. Dwarf Alberta Spruce has a dense shape and form which tolerates pruning vey well and can be used as a miniature Christmas tree in the home. The dense branches hold miniature lights and ornaments making it a special festive mini tree for the kid’s room!
Dwarf Alberta Spruce like a bright light location with a few hours of direct sun. It will grow to a height of 3 – 3.66 m. but is an extremely slow grower. They average about 5-10 cm. per year. Reaching a mature height and width will take 30 plus years to achieve! Turn your tree every week to encourage a straight vertical form. Their lifespan can be fifty or more years. The waxy coating on the needles is natural and the tree rarely produces cones.
After Christmas they do best in cool rooms with average house humidity. Water thoroughly once every three weeks in winter. Check the soil first and if still damp after three weeks, you can wait to water. Check again in a week!
Wait until spring to repot or plant out into a loamy sandy soil in an area with good drainage. Avoid wet locations or overwatering as this spruce will not tolerate the extra water and the green needles will turn yellow – usually from the bottom branches up.
Begin to fertilize about two weeks after planting outside with a half-strength application of evergreen food. If you choose to keep it over spring/summer in a new container each year feed it every three weeks. Water when the top two inches of soil is dry to the touch.
FYI - Yellowing or browning of the needles can be due to being kept too close to a heat source, too much or too little watering. Repot every two to four years.