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This year, why not try swapping a poinsettia for a Christmas cactus?

YOU can understand why our houses in Britain have come to be filled with holly, ivy and mistletoe at Christmas. They are a welcome splash of red, white and green in bare winter woods and you can go out and gather them yourself if you are lucky.

They also have associations with Christianity (the holly's white flowers for the purity of the Virgin Mary and red berries for Jesus' blood) and with older pagan beliefs (the mistletoe is a fertility symbol, which is why we kiss under it).

But what about poinsettias? Why on earth has a Mexican plant that flourishes wild in the tropical forest come to be such a part of our snowy midwinter festival? The answer, it seems, is that it was an idea from the United States - just like Halloween pumpkins and trick-or-treating.

There's a legend that in 16thcentury Mexico a young girl was too poor to provide a gift for the baby Jesus and was told by an angel to gather weeds and place them in front of the church altar. Beautiful red "blossoms" sprouted from the weeds and became poinsettias.

This plant is also known as "the flower of the holy night" or the Christmas flower, although in Spain it is confusingly known as the "Easter flower".

The star-shaped leaf pattern is said to symbolise the star of Bethlehem, while the red represents the blood of the crucifixion, so you can understand the confusion.

There is also confusion about the "flowers". Those lovely red "petals" are in fact leaf bracts and the flowers are the tiny yellow parts in the centre of the plant.

Poinsettias started to become popular in America in the 1920s but have taken over our British Christmases only in recent decades.

It's difficult to keep a poinsettia going for very long. They don't like bright sunshine or draughts - so let them have good morning sun, but then shade in the hotter part of the day. They don't like too much watering, but they do like humid air around them.

But while poinsettias are probably just a festive treat, a Christmas cactus will last for years and thrive on neglect - so it's well worth considering as an alternative.

Just don't water it too much, keep it in a cool-ish room and see it flower with bright pink blooms around Christmas - and if you are lucky, again around Easter time.

But don't let this make you confuse it with the Easter cactus!

The Christmas cactus is usually called a Schlumbergera and has bright pink flowers, while the Easter cactus usually has the Latin name Hatiora and has red or occasionally white flowers.

And after all that they aren't actually cacti, either, but succulents (no prickles).

You could also decorate your Christmas tree with bright flowers for a change, and grow perfumed paperwhite daffodils in a pot as a table centre.

Whether you are buying plants or cut flowers for your own home or as a Christmas gift, online or in a store or garden centre, there's plenty to choose from, so why not try something different this year?

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A poinsettia will only last a few weeks, while a Christmas cactus will last for years and thrive on neglect
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:South Wales Echo (Cardiff, Wales)
Date:Nov 9, 2012
Words:538
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