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Picture the quintessential American Christmas scene: Plants are in the image.

Turn on the television or computer or walk through a store, and there they are: poinsettias, trees, wreaths and colorful plants dressed up or blooming to decorate your table, mantel, living room or doorway. This familiarity with these plants would suggest that if a visitor were to appear from another planet, we could all identify and explain their origins, uses and care – correct? Here is your Christmas plant quiz. Answers follow.

Christmas trees: True or false?

1. While trees undoubtedly were used for symbolic or celebratory purposes in many ancient cultures and pagan religions, the custom of decorating a tree for indoor use started in Germany in the 16th century or possibly the 15th.

2. Most real Christmas trees sold today are (in order of popularity and sales) Scots pines, Douglas fir and blue spruce.

3. To be environmentally responsible, do not use a living tree that was cut down for one use; it’s better to buy a high-quality artificial tree that you can use for many years.

4. To keep your Christmas tree fresh, make a fresh cut to the butt to open the vascular system, put it in fresh water and place it away from heaters or fireplaces. Replace or refresh the water as needed.

5. Most 6-foot Christmas tree species used today take about six years to grow, and hybridizers have developed and improved the species so they are naturally conical and require almost no pruning or shearing.

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Gift plants: Multiple choice (Multiple answers may be correct.)

6. Poinsettias: (a) most have bright red flowers but some are hybridized for variegation, pink or white colors; (b) are beautiful, but they can poison your cat; (c) die if they stand in water; (d) are easy to rebloom year after year

7. Which of these plants have berries, flowers or leaves that are poisonous for pets or people? (a) mistletoe; (b) hollies; (c) junipers; (d) yews; (e) lilies.

8. Which are part of the year-round cycle of Amaryllis care? (a) grow outdoors in summer and fertilize; (b) cut back leaves and stalks after it has flowered; (c) cut back leaves and let it go dormant in a cool room for six weeks in fall; (d) provide 12 hours of complete darkness daily for six weeks in early fall; (e) cut back the stalk after it flowers.

9. Christmas Rose and Lenten Rose are common names for different species of what winter-blooming perennial plant (now sold for indoor winter decoration)? (a) Helleborus; (b) Amaryllis; (c) miniature roses; (d) Poinsettia.

10. Which conditions cause death or failure of Cyclamen? (a) room too cool – needs 65 degrees; (b) room too hot; (c) wet roots; (d) freezing when you leave it in your car.

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Short answer questions

11. What bulb is a narcissus species, often grown on pebbles with its roots in water, that produces a strongly scented flower?

12. What evergreen tree (often sold at Christmas) came from a South Pacific Island, grows 30 feet or more in some southern states and makes a great houseplant?

13. What perennial, with a Latin name that refer to bells, has been appearing in garden centers and magazines under the name “Frosty the Snow Plant”?

14. What houseplants usually bloom in November and December and require either a cold period or weeks of long, dark nights in order to set buds?

15. What should you do for your floral arrangement, boxwood tree or holiday centerpiece to make it last as long as possible? (two answers).

Answers

1. True. The custom didn’t become popular in England until 1846 when the London News pictured Queen Victoria sitting in front of a Christmas tree. In America, German immigrants erected Christmas trees much earlier. The first Christmas tree used at the White House was in the 1850s during President Franklin Pierce’s term.

2. False. Order of popularity (from the National Christmas Tree Association in 2012): Fraser fir, Douglas fir, Balsam fir and Colorado blue spruce. The Scots pine was most popular several decades ago; now many firs top the market.

3. False. Christmas tree plantations benefit wildlife, keep habitat planted (98 percent grown on farms that continually replant), and the trees can be recycled. Teddy Roosevelt banned the Christmas tree from the White House for environmental reasons, but that’s when people were robbing the forests. Artificial trees are made of PVC plastic, end up in a landfill after about seven years, do not decompose and 80 percent come from China.

4. True. Fresh water is key. (Preserving products are not proven to be effective.)

5. False. Most require seven to 10 years before harvest and nearly all require shearing.

6. (c) only. Not (a) because the red parts are bracts, not flowers. They are not toxic; that is well proven to be a complete myth. Reflowering or coloring them is challenging. They do require perfect drainage or rot quickly.

7. All these can be toxic.

8. (a), (c) and (e) will do it.

9. (a) only, although one poinsettia cultivar is called Winter Rose or Christmas Rose (but not Lenten), just to confuse us.

10. (b), (c) and (d). Cyclamen like cool rooms at least at night (55 degrees optimal), die from overwatering and fail in hot, dry conditions.

11. Paperwhites produce bright white flowers; easy to grow – no chilling required.

12. Norfolk Island Pine. (Do increase the humidity.)

13. It’s a white Campanula (Bellflower).

14. Thanksgiving or Christmas cactus (although they’re not cacti!).

15. Add water to the dish or oasis (spongy material) and put it in a cool place at night (55 to 60 degrees ideally).

Results: 13-15 points = serious plant geek (possibly dangerous condition); 10-12 points = plant-savvy citizen. Less than 10 = remedial plant classes or a closer read of this weekly column required! Merry, merry.

Sally Cunningham is a garden writer, lecturer and consultant.