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Poinsettia pointers. December 21, 2011

Posted by ourfriendben in gardening, wit and wisdom.
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The title of this post could have been “Bless Our Bank.” Our tiny local bank is an unmixed blessing. All the tellers know our friend Ben, Silence Dogood, and our black German shepherd, Shiloh, by sight and by name, and always ask how Shiloh and our gardens are doing. This time of year, the bank puts out an assortment of free wall and pocket calendars for its customers, not to mention homemade cookies. It always has free pens, colorful displays by local businesses (often including discount coupons), a pickup site for food bank donations, and our favorite, a fundraiser for cancer-stricken pets and people featuring photos of tellers’ and customers’ pets, including, of course, Shiloh.

Why our friend Ben is going on about our bank in a post on poinsettias is that, when Silence and I dropped by the bank yesterday to see if we still had two cents to our name, they offered us a free poinsettia. A nice, healthy, sizeable poinsettia, and we could choose from five different colors. Since we already had red poinsettias at home, we chose a rather eccentric one, half white and half red with white flecks, to add to the display. Our friend Ben admits that it was not perhaps the most aesthetic choice, but we loved it and hey, it was free! Thank you, Fleetwood Bank.

Around Christmas, we always get a lot of people coming on our blog, Poor Richard’s Almanac, to find out how to care for their poinsettias. So we’re going to repeat the most salient points from previous years’ posts on the topic to help everybody out. Basically, it’s easy to keep poinsettias happy and healthy. As long as you give them light, keep their soil evenly moist, and keep them warm, you’ll enjoy them all winter, and all spring as well if you keep them. 

Here’s a bit more detail:

Poinsettias aren’t poisonous. This is an urban legend that’s been around since 1919. Here’s the truth: Like other euphorbias (the botanical name of poinsettia is Euphorbia pulcherrima), the milky latex sap of poinsettias can be quite irritating to bare skin, and can cause an allergic rash in sensitive individuals if they come in direct contact with the sap. And eeewwww, who’d want to eat one, anyway. But we’ve seen our wicked indoor cats eat many a poinsettia leaf and not only survive to tell the tale but come back for more while we frantically tried to figure out how to save our plants from the living shredders.

Poinsettia flowers are leaves. ‘Fraid so. The poinsettia flowers are those little yellow clusters in the middle of the showy colored leaves, or bracts. But the good news is that (orchids being an exception), the colorful bracts last much longer than flowers, so you can enjoy your poinsettias into spring, as long as you give them some light and remember to water them.

Poinsettias aren’t cold-climate plants. Poinsettias have come to be associated with Christmas, snowy weather, and the North Pole, but the truth is, they’re native to Mexico and south to Guatemala and Nicaragua, where they’re perennial shrubs or small trees. They bloom for us at Christmas because our winter is their summer bloom time.

Poinsettias are not blue, gold, or covered with glitter. At least, not in their natural state. Thanks to plant breeders like Paul Ecke, you can find poinsettias in many colors and forms. We’ve even seen some with variegated leaves. But those blue, gold, and glittery “blossoms” have been created with spray-paint. We think it’s an atrocity to do this to a live plant. Save the fakey colors for the artificial poinsettias, please. Like Jill Masterson in “Goldfinger,” live poinsettias need to breathe.

Poinsettias make lousy cut flowers. That’s why you never see them offered as cut flowers. The milky sap doesn’t do a lot for the water in an arrangement, and the “flowers” don’t last. Keep them on the plant, where they’ll provide fresh, cheerful color for months. 

Poinsettias do come in many colors. Glitter gold may not be one of them, but we’ve seen a lot more variation in “bloom” color than classic red, white and pink. There’s a fabulous glowing orange-scarlet poinsettia, perhaps the Tangerine Tango shade the Pantone people have declared the “in” color for 2012.  We’ve seen poinsettias that were white with pink edges, pink-and-white variegated, red with white flecks, deep velvet maroon, maroon with pink and white spots, even varieties with variegated foliage. There are also varieties in several colors with crumpled “blooms” that we think are hideous, but others clearly don’t share our view, since we see more of them every year. (One friend saw them and rapturously exclaimed, “Oh! They look just like roses!”)

Poinsettia care is easy as 1-2-3. It’s easy to keep your poinsettias looking glorious for months on end (assuming, ahem, you can keep your cats from shredding them) if you remember the three simple secrets of poinsettia care: First, don’t keep them in a dark place. Poinsettias like bright morning light. When the sun heats up in the afternoon, they prefer indirect light. Second, don’t cook or freeze them. Poinsettias prefer moderate temperatures—no hotter than about 70 degrees F. and no colder than 50 degrees F. And third, don’t let them sit in water. Poinsettias like moist soil, not soggy soil and wet feet. Make sure you let the water drain away before returning them to their cachepots or displays. But don’t let them dry out, either. Evenly moist soil is your goal.

Yes, you can keep your poinsettias from year to year. This is more complicated than it sounds, however, which is why most people treat them as long-blooming annuals and buy new ones each Christmas.  To rebloom your plants, pot them up in spring in roomy pots and set them out in a lightly sunny to partially shaded site. (Some people plant them in their garden beds for the growing season and dig them up each fall, but we don’t think the transplant shock is worth it. Ours do fine in pots on our shady deck.)  Give them some liquid seaweed and/or other organic fertilizers, and keep them watered but not overwatered. That’s all there is to it until  about 2 months before you want them to come into bloom.

At that point, bring them inside. Then, every night, put them in a cool closet or other absolutely dark place for 12 hours every night. To initiate bract color (“bloom”), a poinsettia must have uninterrupted darkness. Even someone briefly opening the door to let in a sliver of light will disrupt the cycle. But of course the plants will die if kept in a closet or other dark place for two months, so you must bring them back into the light each day, then return them to darkness every night.

Not only is this more work than most people are willing to go through for a relatively inexpensive plant, but the plant will never again look as good as it did that first year you bought it. That’s because the plant will have grown leggy over the summer. The leaves will be tiny, and so will the colorful “blooms” if you succeed in bringing it back into bloom. In other words, your beloved poinsettia will never look as good as it did the Christmas you bought it.

We suggest taking good care of your poinsettia and enjoying its colorful display while it lasts. We think its greenery adds interest to our summer and fall deck display. But when cold weather arrives, we think it’s time to say goodbye. Your compost pile will thank you. (But please, don’t compost glitter-coated poinsettias! Ouch.) Then buy an old favorite or choose a new one from the many varieties available, and prepare to enjoy it for another year.

Can this poinsettia be saved? January 17, 2010

Posted by ourfriendben in gardening, homesteading, wit and wisdom.
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7 comments

Silence Dogood here. Last week, I had lunch with my good friend Amy at one of my favorite local cafes (the Market Cafe in scenic Topton, PA). Afterwards, I took her for her first visit to my all-time-favorite bulk foods store, the Mennonite-owned Echo Hill Country Store, located in the countryside somewhere near Fleetwood, PA. (If you didn’t know how to get there, I don’t know how you’d ever find it, which is why I drove Amy over in my car. But people regularly stop by from New York and New Jersey, so they must be figuring out some way to find it.)

When I dropped Amy (and a large box of purchases) off at her car, she turned to me sheepishly. “I, uh, I know you know a lot about plants. And I have this poinsettia in the car… ” Oh, no.

Turns out that a friend gave Amy this huge, gorgeous poinsettia as a Christmas present. But she was afraid to bring it inside her house because she has cats and had heard that poinsettias are poisonous, so she just left it in the car in the sub-freezing weather. Poinsettias can’t take temperatures much colder than 50 degrees F. So, guess what? It froze. A gorgeous tropical plant was killed for nothing. Looking at the pitiful, drooping mush that had just days before been vibrant leaves and “flowers” brought a lump to my throat.

“I wondered if you thought you could bring it back to life?” she asked me. Heavy, heavy sigh. How about “I wonder if it ever occurred to you to either decline the plant, since you didn’t want it, or take it directly to the home of a friend who might actually have enjoyed it instead of letting it freeze to death?!!” I refrained from either saying that or waving my hands over the poor plant and shouting “Abracadabra!!!” but it wasn’t easy.

Let’s clear one thing up right away: Poinsettias are not poisonous. This is an urban legend. Yes, the sticky, icky, milky sap can cause skin irritation and even rashes in sensitive individuals, but only if they touch some oozing white sap from a cut leaf or stem. Yes, if your cat eats a whole bunch of leaves, s/he might throw up. (So what else is new?) My cats enjoy eating poinsettia leaves, begonia leaves, Christmas cactus segments, and any other foliage they can sink their evil little teeth into. And the foliage often makes them throw up. But the poinsettias and other plants don’t make them sick, it’s just a delightful adaptation that allows them to get the fur they lick off while grooming out of their system.

Moving on, if you haven’t frozen your poinsettia by leaving it outside or in the car or an unheated garage in freezing winter weather, you might be wondering if you can save it and bring it back into bloom next year. The answer to this is yes, you can. But you probably don’t want to.

To keep a poinsettia alive and happy, bring it into bright indirect light (such as a kitchen window) after the holidays and make sure the soil stays moist but not soggy. The plant will continue to display its colorful “flowers” (actually bracts, modified leaves) for months. Once warm weather finally arrives, look at your poinsettia’s pot. Is it big enough for the plant? If not, pot it up in good potting soil. Then set the plant outside in a sunny (but not full-sun) spot. Continue to water and feed it through the summer.

About 2 months before you want it to bloom, bring it back inside. Poinsettias need 12 hours of continuous darkness a night to initiate their colorful “bloom” displays (again, those so-called “petals” are really modified leaves, the actual blooms are the tiny yellow clusters in the center of each “flower”). In modern houses, it’s not easy to achieve 12 hours of continuous darkness. Most references suggest putting your plant in a guest closet for 12 hours each night, since hopefully no one will throw open the closet door during the dark period, then bringing it out into bright indirect light for the subsequent 12 hours.

And yes, if you do this, your poinsettia will come back into “bloom.” But will it still look good after all that effort? My experience says no. The plant will have grown leggy over the summer. The leaves will be tiny, and so will the colorful “blooms” if you succeed in bringing it back into bloom. In other words, your beloved poinsettia will never look as good as it did the Christmas you bought it.

Much as I hate to tell anyone to toss a living plant, I have to say that poinsettias don’t repay overwintering in our temperate climate. (Things are a bit different in their native Mexico and south to Guatemala and Nicaragua. There, the plants are evergreen outdoors and attain the size of shrubs.) So enjoy the display for the many months your plant is in “bloom.” Then compost it and buy a new plant next year.

         ‘Til next time,

                   Silence

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