Alternative Christmas house plants

Christmas house plants appear in garden centres and florists from November onwards. Many produce a welcome display of colour, but can be challenging to grow, and short lived - often ending up on the compost heap after a month or two.

One of the fussiest winter house plants is poinsettia, which readily drops leaves if too warm, too cold, too wet, or if exposed to draughts. Given its origins in tropical Mexico, it’s perhaps unsurprising that it doesn’t thrive in a British winter. In contrast, our other winter favourites - cyclamen, azaleas and winter cherries - prefer cool temperatures when flowering, so they often turn up their 'toes' when brought into a centrally heated home. 

If you want to grow easier alternatives to these Christmas stalwarts, try our selection, below. All are long lived and undemanding to keep, and will brighten your home for many years to come.

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Christmas cactus

Schlumbergera is a deservedly popular house plant, with attractive red, pink or white flowers that appear in winter. It’s best not to move the plant when in bud, as this can cause bud drop. For the rest of the year, it’s easy to keep: give it a bright spot on an east- or west-facing window sill, water when the soil feels dry, and feed every two weeks. In summer, Schlumbergera will thrive outside in a shady spot, and cuttings can be easily taken.

African violet

Saintpaulia ionantha is a compact plant, so it's perfect if you don’t have much space. Place it on a table or work surface, to show off the delicate blooms, which come in pink, red, white or purple. The key to success is careful watering - wait until the compost feels dry, then stand the pot in a dish of water and let the roots soak up what they need. African violets need bright light, but not direct sunlight, and flower freely with regular feeding and deadheading.

Orchids

Orchids are probably the UK’s favourite house plants, with flowers in a huge range of shades, including the classic Christmas colours - red, white and green. The easiest to grow are moth orchids (Phalaenopsis), which bear red or white blooms for long periods throughout the year. Moth orchirds require a bright spot with no direct sunlight and should only be watered if the pot feels light when lifted. Cymbidium orchids come in red, white and green, flowering just once a year.

Croton

Codiaeum variegatum is the most challenging of our Christmas alternatives, but well worth growing. It makes a dramatic impression with its large, leathery leaves, which are a vibrant combination of red, gold and green. Croton likes heat and humidity, so is best grown in a bathroom or kitchen. Water it every two weeks during the winter months, mist the foliage with rainwater regularly, and position in bright but indirect light.

Unusual conifers

Although they lack vivid colours, the Wollemi pine (Wollemia nobilis) and Norfolk Island pine (Araucaria heterophylla) certainly don’t lack charm. Both species are rare in the wild, so by growing them at home you'll be doing your bit for conservation. Hang decorations on Wollemi and Norfolk Island pines for full festive effect, placing them in a bright spot, away from radiators and fires. Water when the compost feels dry. Both plants benefit from being moved outdoors in summer.

Plant feature by Dr Ross Bayton.

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