Fes­tive flora

The tem­per­a­tures are drop­ping and hours of sun­shine are re­duc­ing. Sue Bradley looks at fes­tive plants that can be used to brighten our homes and braves the cold for a few win­ter jobs

Living France - - A La Maison -

Christ­mas is com­ing and fam­i­lies all over France are dec­o­rat­ing their homes with ever­green fo­liage to en­liven the dark days of win­ter. Just as in Bri­tain, holly – or houx in French – is among the plants tra­di­tion­ally as­so­ci­ated with this time of the year and many peo­ple make a point of wait­ing un­til De­cem­ber to prune their trees so that they can use the trim­mings for dec­o­ra­tions.

There are more than 100 dif­fer­ent types of holly, in­clud­ing sev­eral orig­i­nally se­lected by grow­ers in France, such as Ilex aquifolium ‘Madame Briot’, a beau­ti­ful var­ie­gated cul­ti­var with glossy cream-edged green leaves and glo­ri­ous red berries, and Ilex x koehneana ‘Ch­est­nut Leaf’, which sports fo­liage re­mark­ably sim­i­lar to that of its name­sake and a gen­er­ous num­ber of later-ar­riv­ing red berries.

Plant­ing holly in the gar­den is a good way to en­sure a plen­ti­ful sup­ply of leaves and berries, although it’s im­por­tant to wait un­til spring be­fore un­der­tak­ing the task.

Whether grown as a tree or a shrub, they thrive in all types of free-drain­ing soil and in full sun or par­tial shade.

Holly is gen­er­ally dioe­cious, which means some plants bear male flow­ers and oth­ers fe­male, and this means it’s im­por­tant to grow both types in or­der to en­sure plenty of berries.

When choos­ing plants, how­ever, don’t fall into the trap of as­sum­ing that names match gen­der: the pop­u­lar ‘Sil­ver Queen’ is ac­tu­ally a male cul­ti­var while ‘Golden King’ is fe­male.

If space is a prob­lem, the self-fer­tile Ilex aquifolium ‘JC van Tol’ is a good op­tion, although its glossy dark green leaves are al­most de­void of prick­les.

An end­less sup­ply of Christ­mas fo­liage is one good rea­son to grow holly; an­other is the fact that it pro­vides a rich source of berries for birds.

While it’s ad­vis­able to wait a few months be­fore ac­quir­ing new holly trees, an­other tra­di­tional fes­tive plant that’s read­ily avail­able in the shops now is the poin­set­tia ( see above).

Well known for its green leaves and red bracts, Euphor­bia pul­cher­rima gained its com­mon name from the diplo­mat Joel Roberts Poin­sett, who in­tro­duced them in the USA in 1828.

Make a point of buy­ing poin­set­tias from rep­utable sources, as plants stored in cold con­di­tions will quickly wilt, and al­ways ask shop­keep­ers to wrap the fo­liage in pa­per or plas­tic to pre­vent it from be­ing dam­aged by low tem­per­a­tures. Once home, dis­play the plant in a room with a min­i­mum tem­per­a­ture of 13°C and shield it from strong sun and draughts.

Poin­set­tias should be wa­tered only when the top of the com­post starts to look dry; take care not to over­wa­ter as this can dam­age them. At the same time, it’s rec­om­mended to spray their fo­liage with a fine mist to ex­tend their flow­er­ing pe­riod.

Many peo­ple throw away poin­set­tias af­ter Christ­mas but it is pos­si­ble to keep them go­ing by prun­ing them to around 10cm in April, re­pot­ting them and leav­ing them in a light, cool spot over the sum­mer. Come Novem­ber they should ex­pe­ri­ence at least 12 hours of dark­ness a day, ready for their fes­tive flour­ish the fol­low­ing month.

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