Winter dress-up

  • By Debra Smith / Herald Writer
  • Wednesday, December 1, 2004 9:00pm
  • Life

A string of lights, some seasonal knickknacks, a few boughs of artificial greenery – for many folks this is the extent of holiday decorating.

Consider breathing some life into holiday decor with seasonal plants. They’re an easy way to bring color, warmth and fragrance inside the home and dress a winter-weary yard outside.

This year’s hottest plants include a few tried and true favorites, bold variations of traditional holiday plants and some newcomers. Horticulturist Peggy Campbell of Molbak’s in Woodinville recently toured the nursery and shared some of the most popular plants.

Poinsettias remain the plant of choice during the holidays. The tropical plant’s lush colors last for months indoors and they’re not toxic as many people believe, Campbell said. It’s the nursery’s most popular seller with dozens of varieties to choose from beyond the traditional solid red.

Two new varieties named for famous artists Leonardo Da Vinci and Pablo Picasso resemble impressionistic paintings. The Da Vinci’s top leaves are flecked with coral while the Picasso’s leaves are cream with rose red. Monet – a variety that was developed several years ago and continues to sell well – retains an airbrushed appearance with its rose and apricot-colored leaves. On poinsettias, the colored parts of the plant are actually leaves that have changed color, not flowers.

Another popular poinsettia is the Avantgarde, which has two-tone green leaves below and pink and ivory leaves on top. Another plant, one that draws a strong reaction from most people, is the Winter Rose, a poinsettia with blood red pompoms offset with dark green leaves, Campbell said. The intriguing shape might be too unusual for traditionalists.

If there isn’t enough variety in nature, the nursery also decorates white poinsettias with paint and glitter. The nursery’s artists create color combinations that plant breeders haven’t yet using special paint and extra shiny laser-cut glitter.

Campbell cautioned that the paint designed for coloring plants found in craft stores will brown poinsettias. The nursery is working on packaging the poinsettia paint in small containers so do-it-yourselfers can try this technique at home.

A more contemporary plant, a bromeliad, has grown in popularity over the past several years as interior designers and garden designers have moved toward strong, simple lines and bold, bright colors in home decor. The tropical plant features a tall, spiny stalk that appears in deep scarlet-orange and blue-red.

Bromeliads grow in the crotches of trees in the jungle, catching a drink of water in the curved cup at the top of the plant. Many people still water the plant this way, but Campbell said a little water at the plant’s base works, too. The indoor plant needs bright light and looks fabulous mixed with other plants.

Two indoor plants perfect for children are amaryllis and paperwhites. Both grow quickly when the bulbs are forced indoors, so kids can watch the plant’s progress. Amaryllis can grow up to an inch a day, and it takes about six weeks for them to bloom.

Paperwhites grow so easily they can be grown in gravel, Campbell said. Place some gravel in a cup with no drainage, nestle the paperwhite bulb in the gravel so the tip protrudes and add water. The plant will produce a cluster of fragrant white blossoms.

Another traditional holiday plant is the Christmas cactus. It is one of those no-fuss plants that’s easy to grow and care for, blooming year after year with little effort. Despite the plant’s name it doesn’t have any sharp spikes. The succulent can tolerate drying out a bit because it stores water. It comes in a variety of holiday colors including pink, red and white.

Despite the dreary, drizzling weather, plants need not be limited to the indoors. More people are interested in dressing up the outside of their home, particularly entryways, for the holidays, Campbell said. A number of plants tolerate the winter weather and can even add color to a sad-looking garden.

Potted topiaries, shaped evergreens that often come in poodle or spiral forms, are a popular way to decorate around the front door. Containers of hardy outdoor plants can add color and visual interest tucked around an entryway.

Campbell suggested filling up empty plant containers with cut deciduous holly and magnolia branches tucked into fresh garden soil. The magnolia’s large leaves provide drama and their high gloss, dark green color serves as a perfect backdrop for the colorful red berries of the holly, she said.

Florist cyclamen provides brilliant colors with its heart-shaped leaves and long-stemmed delicate flowers. Most people are familiar with florist cyclamen as an indoor plant, and while most indoor plants don’t fare well outdoors, this is an exception, Campbell said.

Florist cyclamen is a popular flower for Northwest landscapers who want to add color. But Campbell cautions that while this plant likes lower temperatures, it will die if the ground freezes. The plant would do best in a sheltered spot in the yard that receives plenty of light.

She also recommended Oregon grape, which resembles holly with its spiky green leaves but also sports a plume of white, fragrant flowers in the center. Other popular plants that would do well in outdoor containers are black mondo, a dark-colored grass, and a variety of heuchera with dark, rich-colored leaves called plum pudding.

Dwarf Alberta spruce, which can be used when it’s one foot tall or six, can be incorporated into pots or go straight into the yard. The smallest spruces resemble a perfectly shaped Christmas tree.

“It’s the ideal Christmas tree because you don’t have to prune it,” Campbell said.

For those who would prefer to incorporate plants permanently into the yard, Campbell recommended beautyberry. Its metallic-looking purple berries brighten an otherwise somber yard and its funky color fits well next to contemporary homes. There are two types of beautyberry. The one Campbell recommends is Callicarpa bodinieri profusion.

Variegated English holly and deciduous holly are two landscape plants worth growing to use as indoor cuttings during the holidays, she said. The yellow-green leaves of the variegated holly work well with the deciduous holly’s red berries. These plants do best in a sunny area of the yard, but the cuttings do wonders to cheer a dark room.

Reporter Debra Smith: 425-339-3197 or

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