HOLIDAY BLOOMS; Traditional Christmas poinsettias will have plenty of company this year, as a variety of seasonal flowers adds color and sparkle to the festivities. FOCUS ON FLOWERS


Gardeners are a perverse lot. No matter how appalling the summer, or how welcome the respite of fall, the minute we close the storm windows, we want to start gardening all over again -- this time indoors. There was a time when poinsettias, with their cheerful red and green leaves, were the main horticultural event in winter. But we were hungry for more -- more color, more bloom, more scent, more choice. Plantsmen and women have responded. Now we have a host of things to satisfy the winter palate, several of which can be blooming by Christmas.

Bulbs, bushes and blooms

The winter offerings fall generally into three categories -- forced bulbs, woody plants and bushes, and houseplants. Forced bulbs include amaryllis, tulip, narcissus, muscari (grape hyacinth), hyacinth and daffodil. With the exception of amaryllis, once they've been forced, bulbs usually will not bloom well again.

But woody plants and small bushes like rosemary, lavender, curry plant (helichrysum), azalea and gardenia can last for years (and you can trim them every Christmas); when pampered, so do semi-exotic houseplants like freesia, cyclamen, orchid and abutilon, the old-fashioned flowering maple, which blooms nearly year-round provided it's treated to plenty of sun, moisture, warmth and fertilizer.

"Abutilons were all the rage during the Victorian era," says Renee Beaulieu of White Flower Farm in Litchfield, Conn. "They're coming back now."

Big-leafed and lushly flowered, abutilons are about as understated as Scarlet O'Hara. It's easy to see why they appealed to the Victorians, who looked to their frilled and fringed surroundings to mitigate all that emotional repression. Two varieties available from White Flower Farm are 'Clementine,' a mass of dark green leaves with crimson flowers reminiscent of Antebellum hooped skirts, and pictum 'Thompsonii,' which has creamy salmon blooms tucked into bright green foliage that's been spatter-painted with yellow.

"One nice thing is you can summer them outdoors," notes Beaulieu, "and they often last for years more than azaleas."

Christmas bloomers

If you want blossoms specifically for Christmas and New Year's, there are several choices. You can pot up narcissus and muscari, which comes in both grape purple and ghostly white, right now -- provided they have been prepped by the nursery or seller with a period of chilled darkness. When set in a sunny window in a 65- to 70-degree room, they should be perfuming the house by the time the holidays arrive. Tulips generally bloom five weeks after arrival, though some don't ship until December, which means they'll bloom in January. But the 'Angelique' tulip, a beautifully ruffled rose and cream that looks like something out of a Van Dyck painting, can be ordered now from White Flower Farm for Christmas bloom. Or, you can buy holiday-blooming plants.

"White freesias, cyclamen, azalea and abutilons are shipped in full bud so they will bloom within a couple of days of receipt," says Beaulieu, who notes that while most of these plants like cool, bright rooms, abutilon wants warmth along with light. (Order at least two weeks before Christmas to ensure on-time blossom.) "If you put abutilon immediately into a warm spot [70 degrees and above], they bloom quickly."

For Christmas bloom, Carrie Engel of Valley View Farms suggests cyclamen, which comes in both big-flowered and miniature varieties, the miniature being the more fragrant of the two, as well as gardenia and kalanchoe, a houseplant with electric-colored flowers.

"The kalanchoe is a no-brainer, easy-care plant that blooms a long time," Engel notes. "It comes in bright oranges, neon pink and bright yellow."

Sally Foster, proprietor of An East Ridge Garden in Centreville, likes orchids and Christmas cactus for Christmas bloom.

"The Christmas cactus has flat leaves and its flower is elongated and comes in a variety of colors -- white, red, salmon and pink," she says.

Other holiday blooming choices include miniature rose bushes and mini-gardens, which are achieved by planting several kinds of bulbs, plants or both together.

"I like a combination of bulbs," says Marci Brown, proprietor of Outside Insights, a garden design firm in Worton. "For example, I like white crocus with paperwhites and white amaryllis. The only problem is the paperwhites bloom much more quickly than the others, so you may have to pull them out and replace them when they finish."

If you are seeking something longer term -- a little mid-winter pick-me-up for gardeners -- try fragrant winter jasmine, garden pinks (dianthus, also known as carnation) and lily-of-the-valley.

Care and feeding

For many of the winter bloomers, the key is to keep them evenly moist but not soggy and, with the exception of abutilon, in a sunny, cool room (less than 65 degrees). Be sure to get specific instructions for each bulb or plant.



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