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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.



1. pixilated2 - December 21, 2011

Great post! I have only known one other person who knew this much about poinsettias, and she grew them each year at AMFAC Perrys in California every year (till they were sold out that is).

Two Christmases back my poinsettia was neither blue, nor gold sprinkled, but it was sporting a little FROG! I hope you don’t mind my sharing this post (from my orphaned blog), but it was a fun find and a great way to start my day. Seriously! 😉 ~ Lynda


Oh wow, Lynda, a live frog on your poinsettia! (Great photo, too!) I wish we were that lucky, though undoubtedly we’d have whipped together a terrarium for the little fellow, adding yet another creature to our menagerie, so maybe it’s just as well. (As for cat vomit, I can only say that ours have a disastrous tendency to hop up on top of a high bookcase and then rain down disaster. Thank the good God they don’t do it very often!) Many thanks for the kind words about our post, too!

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