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
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.