Keep poinsettias blooming long after the holidays
The poinsettia -- the flower we all associate with Christmas -- has a long history. It was a favorite of King Montezuma and used by the Aztecs to control fevers and make red dyes.
Poinsettias became linked with Christmas in Mexico. The story of Pepita has been passed down since the 16th century. This underprivileged young girl, worried about not having a gift to celebrate the birth of Jesus, picked a bouquet of weeds along the roadside as she headed to church. When she presented her meager arrangement at the foot of the nativity scene, they burst into red poinsettia flowers.
The poinsettia made its way to the United States by Joel Roberts Poinsett. As ambassador to Mexico in the 1820s, Poinsett took cuttings of a poinsettia he found growing in the Mexican countryside and brought them back to the states. To honor Poinsett, December 12th was named National Poinsettia Day -- the day he died in 1851.
John Bartram introduced the poinsettia into commercial trade in the United States in 1829. In the early 1900s, the Ecke family started growing poinsettias in southern California and is one of the world's largest growers of these plants today. Since the 1950s, varieties have been hybridized that keep their color longer, have stronger stems and improved branching. Poinsettias are now available in a wide range of colors from red and burgundy to white, pink, and marbled and speckled variations of these.
With all that history, it's no wonder poinsettias adorn the households of many American families at Christmastime. If a poinsettia is chosen carefully and cared for properly, it can last well past the holidays.
When choosing a poinsettia, look for plants that are full of dark green foliage. Plants that are wilting or have yellow, brown-tipped or missing foliage indicate improper care -- leave these at the store. The "flowers" (actually modified leaves called bracts) should also be completed colored. Look for plants with dense clusters of green or red buds (the true flowers) in the center of the bracts showing little if any yellow pollen.
It is best to stay away from plants that are being displayed in sleeves or are crowded together. Also, poinsettias are very sensitive to drafts, so never choose plants near the entrance of a store where they are assaulted by cold air from opening and closing doors. These plants will decline quickly.
To protect your plant from cold on the way home, wrap it in a paper sleeve or layers of newspaper if sleeves are not available. Take your poinsettia home -- don't leave it in the car while doing a little more Christmas shopping.
The ideal spot for your poinsettia is in a room with bright light out of direct sunlight and away from drafts. Daytime temperatures of 65 to 70 degrees and nighttime temperatures at about 60 degrees are best.
Poinsettias are very sensitive to overwatering. Water plants when the soil begins to feel dry and then water until it runs out the pot's drainage holes. Never let poinsettias sit in water. If the plant is displayed in decorative foil, remove it and let all the water drain away before placing it back in the foil. If the plant is sitting in a saucer, don't let water collect in the saucer.
Poinsettias do not require fertilizer while they are blooming. If you plan to keep your plant indefinitely, feed them once a month with a balanced houseplant fertilizer beginning in January.
Despite commonly-held beliefs, poinsettias are not poisonous. However, they are not intended to be eaten and if ingested in large quantities it may cause varying degrees of digestive discomfort. Although generally not harmful to pets, keep poinsettias out of reach of chewing puppies and grazing cats. The milky sap of poinsettias can cause skin reactions in people with latex allergies.
Poinsettias are such a lovely holiday gift. But with proper care, poinsettias don't have to be just a holiday plant. They can continue to add color and beauty to your home for many weeks.
• Diana Stoll is a horticulturist and the garden center manager at The Planter's Palette, 28W571 Roosevelt Road, Winfield. Call (630) 293-1040, ext. 2, or visit planterspalette.com.