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Poinsettias: Holiday Perfection

 

The holidays beckon with poinsettias pointing the way to colorful displays

Poinsettias are instant space-brighteners and one of the official harbingers of the holiday season. You'll find seas of reds, pinks, and other shades dotting the landscape at discount and grocery stores as well as garden centers and a host of oddball locations. Before you grab up those plastic- or foil-wrapped containers, it pays to know just a little about these finicky houseplants that may easily survive beyond the season.

A little poinsettia history

Poinsettias are classified as semi-tropicals and, therefore, thrive in a not-too-hot, not-too-cold climate. Cooler at night and not much above 70º during the day. Eurphorbia pulcherrima is a Southern Mexico native. They were "discovered" by the first U.S. Ambassador to Mexico, Joel Robert Poinsett. After seeing these blazing blooms on a hillside near Taxco, he imported them into the U.S. in 1985, and from there gifted various botanical gardens around the world. Today, of course, poinsettias grace a majority of homes and businesses.

Selecting a poinsettia

The brightly colored bracts (or shades of cream, white, and variegated) should be full with little or no green tingeing. It is the small, yellowish centers that are the flowers. If these are not showing, then the plant is already on its last legs. The green leaves should be full and growing to the very base of the stem.

Avoid plants that are totally encased in plastic; when the leaves emit ethylene gases, they must evaporate and not cling to the interior. Open pots are best and foil is acceptable. Purchase plants that are evenly spaced on the counter and not crowded. Poinsettias need plenty of air circulation to thrive. Do not expose them to extreme cold on the way home. Protect them with a bag or sack as the extreme temperatures will cause leaf drop. Once that occurs, there is very little chance of revival.

Check the leaf undersides for bugs. Those pests attracted to poinsettias are persistent and will migrate easily to other plants. Also, inspect bracts - no wilting or dropping allowed.

Give your poinsettia a happy home

Once your plant is home - or if you have received it as a gift - remove it from the wrapper and give it a thorough room-temperature watering. Allow to drain well and then place back in decorative wrapper if desired.

While poinsettias prefer the cooler side of life, they do like a morning sun location. Diffuse the afternoon rays, don't let the leaves touch windows or other objects, and protect from any hot or cold drafts or breezes.

Watering can be tricky - not too much or too little. If the soil has dried out at 1-2 inches below the surface, give it some water. If it's still moist, check it the next day. In fact, the rule of thumb is to test the poinsettia's soil every day. Always allow for plenty of drainage time. They even love the humidity of sitting on rocks in a water-filled saucer. No fertilizer is necessary while blooming.

Care for poinsettias in the "off" seasons

Ready to toss your poinsettia? Not so fast. With a little extra care, you can see this beautiful plant through to another holiday season.

Sometime between March and May, cut your poinsettia back to about 6 inches. The remaining leaves are fine, just be sure to cut above a stem node. If the roots are outgrowing the container, repot. You can also root these cuttings, if desired, for later repotting. Wash away any of the milky sap. Leave in a sunny, protected window and continue watering as if the plant were in full bloom.

When nighttime temperatures are at 60º or higher, you can place the poinsettia outside in a protected area. Fertilize and water on a regular basis. As newer shoots develop, pinch off the top inch or so of each to develop a fuller winter plant. Pinch back shoots around the first of July and about mid-August.

By early September, it's time to bring your poinsettia back inside. At this point, care is very important to have a brilliant display for the holidays. The plant must be kept in total darkness for about 12 hours each day - sunset to sunrise - for new blooms to develop. Keep in a cool, dark spot (below 70º F.) and then return to its sunny spot as usual during the day. If you don't have a spare room, then use a large box, place the poinsettia on the floor where it is cooler, and cover. When the bracts begin to turn their original hues, then you can resume the holiday schedule.

A final word about toxicity

While you never want pets or children chewing on plants, the poinsettia has received a bad rap regarding its toxicity. It does exude a milky sap that can be an irritant, but tests have proven it is not fatal to humans or animals. Regardless of that news, it is always best to keep any plant out of harm's way.

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