The Yuletide jewel

Poinsettias are synonymous with Christmas. In fact, the poinsettia is the most popular flowering plant purchased in the United States. More than 70 million plants are sold each holiday season. Just seeing them displayed at grocery stores and nurseries invokes the holiday spirit.

Yet, I doubt many gardeners know the poinsettia by its botanical name, Euphorbia pulcherrima. I certainly did not, even though euphorbia is one of my favorite plants to use in garden design to add interesting texture and foliage. Poinsettias are small shrubs that are indigenous to Mexico, where they can be found growing wild in the deciduous rain forests. They are used as flowering shrubs in Mexican gardens as well as in hot, dry climates in the United States, such as New Mexico and Arizona, where they grow directly in the ground and thrive in the absence of freezing temperatures.

Poinsettias are named for Joel Roberts Poinsett (1779-1851), who was the first United States minister to Mexico. Poinsett, who was a South Carolinian, introduced the poinsettia to the United States in 1825. A fun fact to tell your gardening friends is that Dec. 12 is National Poinsettia Day.

Poinsettias are small shrubs that have multi-veined green leaves and clusters of brachts, which are usually bright red but have been hybridized to be white, pink, and even variegated with marbled and speckled patterns. The ‘Prestige’ variety of poinsettia is the most popular. Solid red, it accounts for 70 percent of all poinsettia sales in our domestic market. The “flowers” of the poinsettia are not really flowers at all, but are the modified leaves of the poinsettia plant. Poinsettias are usually evergreen and require long periods of darkness to develop the flaming red brachts that we associate with Christmas. Commercial poinsettia growers raise the young plants in greenhouses, which they completely cover with black-out cloth for two months in the fall. As a result, the brachts turn either red, pink, or white in time for the Christmas markets in late November and throughout December. Any light can slow down or stop the color changing process.

More than 100 varieties of poinsettias are cultivated in the United States. The ‘Oakleaf’ poinsettia, developed in 1923, is the oldest cultivar grown.

Selecting the Right One

Choosing a poinsettia can be like choosing fruits and vegetables at the grocery store. The poinsettias are shipped to stores throughout the United States right after Thanksgiving. It is important to buy a plant that has not been damaged in transit. Look for dark green leaves and bright colored brachts. Make sure the plant has been watered appropriately and has not dried out completely. Ideally you should buy the plants as soon as they come into the market or nursery because it is difficult for the nursery staff or market workers to water them properly. Poinsettias like to be fully drenched and then drain completely. The plants prefer to dry out almost entirely before being watered again. They also do not respond well to hot, humid conditions. Choose a plant that is full all the way down the stem. Check that it is balanced and looks pretty from all sides. Make sure that they are supported well during transport because they are fragile. They can be top heavy and fall over, which could cause many of the colorful brachts and stems to break.

I have seen some beautiful topiary poinsettias. They make fabulous decorations; however, they are even more difficult to transport so be prepared with an extra set of hands for the drive home.


Beautiful Through the Holidays

Poinsettias thrive in filtered light. They are happiest when provided with six to eight hours of filtered sunlight. Choose a spot in the house that receives morning sun. Try not to place the plant too close to a heat vent. The dry heat in houses can dry out the plant very quickly, causing the brachts to fall off the stems. I have found the best way to water poinsettias is to take the plant out of its decorative pot or container, place it in the kitchen sink and use the sprayer setting on the faucet to drench the roots. Try not to water the brachts or leaves directly. Let the water drain out of the bottom of the plastic container in which it is growing. When the water stops flowing, place it back in its decorative container.


Tender Loving Care

Most people toss their poinsettias after Christmas, but if you want to keep your poinsettia, these useful steps will maintain its health so that it might possibly be ready to use next Christmas.

Once the colorful brachts fade, usually in March or April, prune the plant back to about 8 to10 inches tall. Your plant will look spindly and bare, but do not despair – new growth will appear from the leaf nodes along the stalk. Place your pruned plant in a sunny location, but shield it from the strong afternoon sun. Water regularly, making sure not to let it completely dry out, and let it drain completely after each watering. Fertilize with a light solution of water-soluble fertilizer every two to three weeks. Once the weather begins to warm and threat of frost is over, you may put the plant outside in a shady spot in the garden. Make sure you monitor the moisture and do not let it dry out. You will be surprised how quickly it will begin to leaf out again. In June or July, repot the plant into a container that is 4 to 6 inches larger than the one it is in. Use a light potting soil and be very careful not to disturb the tender roots. Make sure that you do not replant it too deeply. Water it gently and let it completely drain. Monitor the temperature and bring the plant back inside when the nightly temperatures return to the high 50s or 60s.


Making the Poinsettia Re-flower

Go ahead and give it a try! Poinsettias are short-day plants, meaning that they need extended and continual periods of darkness to produce the desired colorful brachts. Start the re-flowering procedure in early October. The poinsettia must be in complete darkness for 14 hours a day. This can be accomplished by placing the plant in a dark closet with no windows or simply putting a large box over the plant. The plant must then be exposed to six hours of bright sunlight. Most varieties will come into full bloom after eight to 10 weeks of this procedure. Make sure that you water the plant regularly during this period, and fertilize with a light water soluble fertilizer every month or so. This is definitely a time consuming process, but how rewarding it will be to see those first brachts turning color in time for the holidays!


Are Poinsettias Poisonous?

I have heard all of my gardening life that poinsettias are poisonous and accepted it as fact; however, most “experts” say that poinsettias are essentially not poisonous. Ingesting an entire poinsettia could certainly cause some discomfort, but from the sources I have studied, no evidence indicates that poinsettias are toxic or unsafe to have in the house. Just as you would monitor your pets and children to make sure they do not eat an azalea leaf, I would apply the same principle to poinsettias.

Here is a list of some of the most popular varieties that can be found at our farmers’ market and local nurseries.

Solid red varieties: ‘Carousel Dark Red,’ ‘Prestige Maroon,’ ‘Red Jubilee,’ ‘Red Elf,’ and ‘Novia.’

White varieties: ‘White Christmas,’ ‘Cortex White,’ ‘Infinity Polar,’ ‘Polar Bear,’ and ‘Premium Polar.’

Pink varieties: ‘Pink Cadillac,’ ‘Pollys Pink,’ ‘Pink Elf,’ and ‘Enduring Pink.’

Marbled varieties: ‘Marblestar,’ ‘Christmas Angel Marbella,’ ‘Winter Blush,’ and ‘Infinity Marble.’

Whether you plan to discard your poinsettias after the holiday or take the leap and try to make them re-bloom, no other flowering plant says “Merry Christmas” like a poinsettia. I can hardly wait to see how many varieties I can find this holiday season.


Gardening Chores for the December Gardener

December is a nice, quiet time for gardeners when they can focus efforts on interior gardening and decorating.

• Choose a new variety of poinsettia to decorate your house for Christmas or to give to your friends as a present.

• When pruning the garden, save any interesting magnolia stems and other such items to use as decorations for your mantle, window sills, or front door. Add magnolia leaves to your Fraser fir wreaths to add additional texture and color.

• Check outdoor lighting so that your house is aglow during the holidays.

• Deadhead pansies and violas for extended bloom. Fertilize every month with a water soluble fertilizer such as Miracle-Gro.

• Drain hoses and store if freezing weather is predicted.

• Sharpen and oil garden tools.

• Reorganize your garage or storage shed.

• Order a new garden design book and begin planning a new area of your garden.

• Order vegetable seeds to start inside. Heirloom varieties are particularly easy and rewarding to try.

• Redefine planting beds and top dress with a light layer of mulch or pine straw to make the garden look fresh and neat.

• Your garden looks its worst in winter. Reevaluate problem areas and make notes for improvement.

• If any evergreen bushes need pruning, use the branches in your house for festive holiday decorating and arrangements.

• Make sure bird baths are clean and full of fresh water for aviary friends.

• Make sure bird feeders are clean and full during the winter months.

• Prune any bushes that have overgrown outdoor lighting fixtures so that the optimum light is seen.

• Keep the grass raked and free of too much fallen pine straw or leaves.

• Plant late spring blooming bulbs.

• Divide any overgrown hostas or perennials on days when the soil is warm.

• Make sure your Christmas tree is kept watered so it does not dry out and become a fire hazard.

• Water your poinsettias when they are almost completely dried out. Make sure they are drained well before putting back in their decorative container.

• Enjoy this quiet time in the garden.

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