Euphorbia pulcherrima – Poinsettia. Choose plants that have their little yellow true flowers, called cyathia, in the centre of the coloured bracts. If you choose a plant that’s shedding pollen or the yellow flowers have dropped off, it’s past its prime and won’t last through the season. In Mediterranean areas, these are woody plants that are used as perennials and can form hedges. They have spectacular scarlet displays in midwinter and love the open sandy soils of the Algarve coast. Don’t let the roots sit in water, keep watering to a minimum and use an open compost.
Schlumbergera buckleyii – although known as Christmas cactus, this is really a succulent and has its origins in the tropics. It can be very long-lived and there are some huge examples. Like the poinsettia, the Christmas cactus needs to follow a pretty strict regimen in the autumn weeks to bloom at Christmas. To form flower buds, it needs extended darkness for at least four weeks. Keep them potbound in sandy soil and water only when the soil is completely dry. Fertilise in spring after flowering, move outdoors to a shady area in the summer.
Cyclamen – many species are Mediterranean natives and florist shop plants are hybrids of the tender scented Cyclamen persicum. Place in medium shade, not bright light. Avoid warm draughts to prolong flowering, and deadhead spent flowers and yellow leaves by pulling off the entire stem near the foliage line. Water from the base, not from the top, by setting it in a saucer of water and letting it absorb for 15 to 20 minutes, then remove the plant. Avoid splashing water on the leaves. Again, overwatering or a soggy root compost will kill this plant.
Table topiary – aromatic herbs such as rosemary do well in small containers and, with some preparation, can be trimmed into decorative shapes for your dining table. Best of all, they can go out into the garden after the festive season. You might also like to try using small olive trees in containers.
Amaryllis – it is fairly easy to find these bulbs for sale in bud ready to flower but, what to do after Christmas? Once the flowers fade, cut the stalk but keep the leaves to help replenish the nutrients in the bulb. Move outside into a shaded area. Let the bulb go dormant and cut off the yellowed leaves and ignore it (no water!) until new leaves appear and you can begin watering to start the growing cycle again.
Narcissus papyraceus – Paperwhites. This bulb is a native of Portugal and other Mediterranean zones. They are specially treated in the horticultural trade to produce large flowering bulbs for the Christmas season but there is no reason why they cannot be put into your Algarve garden after flowering. Do not bury them too deep and try to put them in a semi-shade position. For cultivated bulbs, some long-term plant food will help with future flowering.
Capsicum annuum – Chinese Five Colour. An ornamental and edible hot pepper. The conical peppers grow to about 1-2” and are best known for their multiple colour changes as they ripen through the season. Colours include purple, red, yellow, orange, white and various shades in-between. A mature plant looks as if it has already had a string of lights installed.
Christmas tree – although cut pines are available, it can be good fun to visit the plant nursery or garden centre and look for a small evergreen tree or shrub that can be used in the house and then planted out into the garden. We have successfully used a bay laurel tree (Laurus nobilis) as a Christmas tree and it is now a large shrub in the garden providing us with leaves for cooking.
By Rosie Peddle
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Mediterranean Gardening Association – Portugal