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Place your bets: Which grocery plants will survive?

December 20, 2010 | 11:59 am

Holiday-Plants-main

It's a holiday pop quiz! Which of these plants will most likely live to see another Christmas? Which can survive in a patio pot or flower bed, and which will just end up in the compost bin no matter how much TLC you provide?

We hit a bunch of markets and bought those cheery pots of seasonal greenery that beckon from the checkout line: the cute miniature trees, the newfangled poinsettias, the rosemary bushes clipped into aromatic Tannenbaums -- all those plants bought as last-minute holiday décor or perhaps as an alternative to bringing cut flowers or wine to your party host.

Unfortunately, some seasonal flora are essentially disposable greenery. No matter how hard you try, their long-term prospects are not so merry and bright. In other cases, well-tended holiday plants can become yearly delights on the patio or in the flower bed.

We peeled off the pretty foil wrapping and then turned to several experts, including Jerrold Turney, landscape architect and senior biologist and plant pathologist with the Los Angeles County Agricultural Commissioner's office, for help assessing these supermarket selections. We also got instruction on how to keep their holiday spirit alive, year after year. Keep reading to see each plant's odds of survival ...

And before we get the lecture from some smarty-pants out there, let us just acknowledge: With the exception of the rosemary, none of these plants should be treated as a snack. Plant them. Don't let any person or pet eat them. There. We said it.

Holiday-plants-cypress

Chamaecyparis lawsoniana Ellwoodii

From: Trader Joe's

Tag description: “Native to Northern California and Oregon, this holiday tree features beautiful feathery foliage.... After holidays, transplant to larger pot or plant outdoors. Best in full sun. Grows 8-15 feet tall.”

Odds of survival in Southern California: 10 to 1 inland, 5 to 1 closer to the coast

The lowdown: We also found this plant sold as Cupressus Ellwoodii at Fresh & Easy. This is a dwarf version of what's often called Port Orford cedar, although it's not a true cedar. It is compact and may reach the heights cited in the tag — but probably not in Southern California. "I wouldn't recommend it," Turney said. “Anything that is native to Northern California, Oregon or Washington is marginal in Southern California. It's not going to like our hot weather or our hard water. If it survives, it's going to grow slowly and is strictly for accent.”

Holiday-plants-italian-pine
Italian stone pine

From: Pavilions

Tag description: "Native to southern Europe, this dramatic ornamental tree makes the perfect living gift! … Grows 40-80 feet tall."

Odds of survival in Southern California: 3 to 2

The lowdown: This tree's odds of survival in Southern California are excellent, but its chances for fitting into a typical backyard are slim — say, 100 to 1, Turney said. Though it certainly looks like a miniature tree now, over the next century it could grow taller than the 80 feet cited on the tag and sport a 4-foot-diameter trunk. “It's a beautiful tree and survives easily here, but it's too big for a typical residential lot,” Turney said. It also has a tendency to drop large branches without warning. One solution: Plant it in a 15-gallon planter, where its growth will be contained, and keep it pruned for use as your annual Christmas tree.

Holiday-plants-poinsettia
Ice punch poinsettia

From: Bristol Farms

Tag description: None

Odds of survival in Southern California: 4 to 1

The lowdown: The colder temperatures in your microclimate get, the lower the odds of survival. Chances of a Christmas bloom next year without the equivalent of horticultural steroids is about 1,000 to 1. In nature, without a bloom forced by heavy fertilizing, the plants put out their flowers in spring. Most poinsettias you see now were developed for greenhouse production and for sale at Christmas — not as a year-round garden plant. They can survive, but they require attention: Prune them to keep from getting leggy, and protect them from frost. "In inland areas, plant close to the house for warmth — against a sunny southern wall would be ideal," Turney said. "After it blooms, cut it low and pinch out the tips to make it bushy."

Holiday--plants-amaryllis
Amaryllis

From: Ralphs and Whole Foods

Tag description: "Keep planting mix moist... After flowering, place in sunny, warm area for 9-10 months. Then store dry bulb or green plant at 55 degrees for 8-10 weeks. Repot and resume watering. … Use liquid fertilizer monthly."

Odds of survival in Southern California: 3 to 2

The lowdown: Amaryllis is a showy flower that screams to be noticed, so pick an easy-to-see spot outside that gets good light and has soil that's kept moist but not wet. You even might try skipping the repotting step and just leave the bulb in the ground. "They will bloom every year, not like tulips that will never bloom again for you," Turney said. Cut off the flower stalk when the bloom is over, but leave the rest of the plant alone; don't clip leaves, even if they appear to be dying. Feed the plant until August, then stop; resume feeding in December, after yellowed leaves drop off. If the plant doesn't re-bloom the first year after transplanting, it may not have gone dormant or gotten enough sun. Give it another year.

HOliday-plants-rosemary
Rosemary bush shaved into tree form

From: Whole Foods

Tag description: "Makes the perfect living gift! … Place in front of a sunny window.... Be sparing with water and provide plenty of air circulation.... Outdoors: Consult your local nursery professional."

Odds of survival in Southern California: 3 to 2

The lowdown: Rosemary is wonderfully suited to Southern California. It's drought tolerant and troubled by few pests or diseases. Its worst enemy is water. The plant probably has been over-watered at the supermarket, so check the roots after bringing it home, then water sparingly, even when transplanting. Once it's established, water once a month in spring and fall, twice a month in summer. “People water rosemary three times a week, and they get root rot problems,” Turney said. “It'll do best with full sun, even in the heat of the Valley.”

Holiday-plants-mums
Chrysanthemum

From: Gelson's

Tag description: “Mums do well in a wide range of light. Water thoroughly after soil surface feels dry to touch. Rich masses of flowers cover wide-spreading, compact plants with dark green foliage.”

Odds of survival in Southern California: 10 to 1

The lowdown: Well, yes, the dense foliage and flowers can look great, but they will require weekly work. The ones coming from the store — often reds, greens or whites this time of year — are likely hybrids that can be spectacular with the right amount of attention. After the bloom is over, cut stalks to the ground. Plant in full sun in cooler microclimates, morning sun and afternoon shade in hot areas. If plants from the store feel surprisingly light, that's because they were grown in peat moss, not soil; they will dry out fast unless you split the root ball and integrate soil or compost-rich planting mix into the roots. When the mums re-sprout, they require staking, frequent pinching of the tips and regular feeding if you want them to look good. Also expect to battle pests such as aphids and stem borers. "I don't want to give them a bad rap as they are a great flower," Turney said. "Just high maintenance."

Holiday-plants-succulent-wreath
Succulent wreath

From: Home Depot

Tag description: "Hang the wreath on a door or a wall, or set in a favorite dish and add a candle to create a beautiful centerpiece for your table.... Protect from frost."

Odds of survival in Southern California: 3 to 2

The lowdown: We know Home Depot isn't a grocery store, but we couldn't complete a holiday plant roundup without mentioning the succulent wreath, horticulture craft project of choice these days and budget-minded garden gift available through many sources. The $19 hardware store version we bought is a mix of echeveria with green jade plants and sedum flushed red around the edges. Watered occasionally and pruned regularly, the wreath will keep its shape for years; it also can be planted now, to be sustained largely by winter rains.

-- Jeff Spurrier

Photos: Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles Times

RELATED:

Home and garden gift guide

Oh, the poor grocery store plant. Perhaps it will be bought as last-minute holiday décor for your home. Or perhaps it's an alternative to handing cut flowers or wine to your holiday party host. But then what? How many just end up in the trash?

It's not always our fault. Some seasonal flora sold in grocery stores are essentially grown as disposable greenery. No matter how hard you try, their long-term prospects are not so merry and bright. In other cases, well-tended holiday plants can become yearly delights on the patio or in the flower bed. We turned to several experts, including Jerrold Turney, landscape architect and senior biologist and plant pathologist with the Los Angeles County Agricultural Commissioner's office, for help assessing these supermarket selections.





Pop quiz! Which of these plants will most likely live to see another Christmas? Which can survive in a patio pot or flower bed, and which will just end up in the compost bin no matter how much TLC you provide?

We hit eight markets and bought those cheery pots of seasonal greenery that beckon from the checkout line: the cute miniature trees, the newfangled poinsettias, the mums in red and green foil-wrapped pots, the rosemary bushes clipped into aromatic Tannenbaums. Then we consulted with horticulture experts to estimate the plants' odds of survival and, perhaps more important, to get instruction on how to keep the holiday spirit alive, year after year.



Chamaecyparis lawsoniana


Ellwoodii


From: Trader Joe's


Tag description: “Native to Northern California and Oregon, this holiday tree features beautiful feathery foliage. … After holidays, transplant to larger pot or plant outdoors. Best in full sun. Grows 8-15 feet tall.”


Odds of survival: 10 to 1 inland, 5 to 1 closer to the coast


The lowdown: We also found this plant sold as Cupressus Ellwoodii at Fresh & Easy. This is a dwarf version of what's often called Port Orford cedar, although it's not a true cedar. It is compact and may reach the heights cited in the tag — but probably not in Southern California. “I wouldn't recommend it,” Turney said. “Anything that is native to Northern California, Oregon or Washington is marginal in Southern California. It's not going to like our hot weather or our hard water. If it survives, it's going to grow slowly and is strictly for accent.”



Italian stone pine


From: Pavilions


Tag description: “Native to southern Europe, this dramatic ornamental tree makes the perfect living gift! … Grows 40-80 feet tall.”


Odds of survival: 3 to 2


The lowdown: This tree's odds of survival in Southern California are excellent, but its chances for fitting into a typical backyard are slim — say, 100 to 1, Turney said. Though it certainly looks like a miniature tree now, over the next century it could grow taller than the 80 feet cited on the tag and sport a 4-foot-diameter trunk. “It's a beautiful tree and survives easily here, but it's too big for a typical residential lot,” Turney said. It also has a tendency to drop large branches without warning. One solution: Plant it in a 15-gallon planter, where its growth will be contained, and keep it pruned for use as your annual Christmas tree.



Ice punch poinsettia


From: Bristol Farms


Tag description: None


Odds of survival: 4 to 1


The lowdown: The colder temperatures in your microclimate get, the lower the odds of survival. Chances of a Christmas bloom next year without the equivalent of horticultural steroids is about 1,000 to 1. In nature, without a bloom forced by heavy fertilizing, the plants put out their flowers in spring. Most poinsettias you see now were developed for greenhouse production and for sale at Christmas — not as a year-round garden plant. They can survive, but they require attention: Prune them to keep from getting leggy, and protect them from frost. “In inland areas, plant close to the house for warmth — against a sunny southern wall would be ideal,” Turney said. “After it blooms, cut it low and pinch out the tips to make it bushy.”



Amaryllis


From: Ralphs and Whole Foods


Tag description: “Keep planting mix moist. … After flowering, place in sunny, warm area for 9-10 months. Then store dry bulb or green plant at 55 degrees for 8-10 weeks. Repot and resume watering. … Use liquid fertilizer monthly.”


Odds of survival: 3 to 2


The lowdown: We're still pondering the tag on the Whole Foods plant that included the instruction, “Do not consume.” Amaryllis is a showy flower that screams to be noticed, so pick an easy-to-see spot outside that gets good light and has soil that's kept moist but not wet. You even might try skipping the repotting step and just leave the bulb in the ground. “They will bloom every year, not like tulips that will never bloom again for you,” Turney said. Cut off the flower stalk when the bloom is over, but leave the rest of the plant alone; don't clip leaves, even if they appear to be dying. Feed the plant until August, then stop; resume feeding in December, after yellowed leaves drop off. If the plant doesn't re-bloom the first year after transplanting, it may not have gone dormant or gotten enough sun. Give it another year.



Rosemary bush

shaved into tree form


From: Whole Foods


Tag description: “Makes the perfect living gift! … Place in front of a sunny window. … Be sparing with water and provide plenty of air circulation. … Outdoors: Consult your local nursery professional.”


Odds of survival: 3 to 2


The lowdown: Rosemary is wonderfully suited to Southern California. It's drought tolerant and troubled by few pests or diseases. Its worst enemy is water. The plant probably has been over-watered at the supermarket, so check the roots after bringing it home, then water sparingly, even when transplanting. Once it's established, water once a month in spring and fall, twice a month in summer. “People water rosemary three times a week, and they get root rot problems,” Turney said. “It'll do best with full sun, even in the heat of the Valley.”



Chrysanthemum


From: Gelson's


Tag description: “Mums do well in a wide range of light. Water thoroughly after soil surface feels dry to touch. Rich masses of flowers cover wide-spreading, compact plants with dark green foliage.”


Odds of survival: 10 to 1


The lowdown: Well, yes, the dense foliage and flowers can look great, but they will require weekly work. The ones coming from the store — often reds, greens or whites this time of year — are likely hybrids that can be spectacular with the right amount of attention. After the bloom is over, cut stalks to the ground. Plant in full sun in cooler microclimates, morning sun and afternoon shade in hot areas. If plants from the store feel surprisingly light, that's because they were grown in peat moss, not soil; they will dry out fast unless you split the root ball and integrate soil or compost-rich planting mix into the roots. When the mums re-sprout, they require staking, frequent pinching of the tips and regular feeding if you want them to look good. Also expect to battle pests such as aphids and stem borers. “I don't want to give them a bad rap as they are a great flower,” Turney said. “Just high maintenance.”



Succulent wreath


From: Home Depot


Tag description: “Hang the wreath on a door or a wall, or set in a favorite dish and add a candle to create a beautiful centerpiece for your table…. Protect from frost.”


Odds of survival: 3 to 2


The lowdown: We know Home Depot isn't a grocery store, but we couldn't complete a holiday plant roundup without mentioning the succulent wreath, horticulture craft project of choice these days and budget-minded garden gift available through many sources. The $19 hardware store version we bought is a mix of echeveria with green jade plants and sedum flushed red around the edges. Watered occasionally and pruned regularly, the wreath will keep its shape for years; it also can be planted now, to be sustained largely by winter rains.
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