Gardener's Grapevine 2012.01.04

Written by David Green.

Happy New Year! The key word is new. With the holidays past, many of you have a poinsettia plant sitting there looking less than fresh. What to do? Well, I work with a doctor who keeps her poinsettias year after year, and yes, they bloom, but they are not the lush greenhouse plant they started as.

Prior to Christmas she and I were discussing poinsettias and their survival, and also how neither of us can stand to throw away another living thing. This is exactly why I never want a poinsettia during the holidays—they are beautiful, yet the dilemma begins after the holidays about what to do with the less-than-attractive, not dead plant. With that said, I did a little reading on this symbol of the holidays.

Here are some facts: The plant is a native of Mexico; it’s a perennial capable of growing up to ten-feet tall. The showy colored parts most people consider the flower is actually the plant’s bracts (a modified plant leaf associated with the plants reproductive system). The true flowers of the plant are the center of the bracts. Commercial poinsettias are priced on the number of “blooms” (bract clusters). The plant is not poisonous, but the sap can be irritating to the skin and give an upset stomach if consumed in large enough quantities. They are grown in all 50 states, there are more than 100 varieties, and 85 percent of all Christmas plants purchased are poinsettias.

Here are some pointers for caring for a poinsettia: When picking out a plant, make sure it is wrapped very well, as exposure to low temperatures for even a minimal time can stress the plant and shorten its life and leaf show. Set the plant in indirect light—they need six hours of light each day—and do not let it touch a window. It should be kept at a temperature of 60 to 70 degrees in daytime and 55 degrees at night.

The soil should be well drained. Punch holes in the foil and set it on a saucer to drain the excess water. Let the soil dry before watering; they do not like to be wet for long periods and a wet plant will drop its bracts faster.

To keep that plant going until next Christmas, it needs to be in a room with curtain filtered light and the soil must be allowed to go dry to the touch and watered only sparingly. In the winter months it will not grow, as this is its dormant stage and fertilizer uptake will be minimal.

After temperatures reach 50 degrees, the plant can be kept outside. Start it out in the shade for two weeks then move to part sun for two weeks then into full or partial sun. Do not put the plant in direct hot sunlight, as it will scorch the leaves. At this point the plant is in a weakened state and needs to be protected. It needs fertilized every fifth watering with houseplant, poinsettia or evergreen fertilizer to encourage growth. 

In the fall, bring the plant inside and begin the process of forming bracts. This process can take two months or longer. Change to a nitrogen based fertilizer, one for poinsettias is best, and reduce the amount of fertilizer to half of what you have been using.

Begin the process of long nights and short days—13 hours of pure darkness (this means uninterrupted darkness, not even a street lamp in the distance can be present) and 11 hours of sunlight. After two months, this pattern can be stopped, fertilizer decreased and the plant placed in the sunniest window in the house. Don’t over-water it.

If you have a notion to do this, I wish you the best of luck and I stand by my desire to not have these beautiful plants in my home, as I would never be able to do all this with my work schedule.

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