Gardening: Poinsettias for Christmas color | Community

Have you considered decorating your home this season with the lovely poinsettia?

The poinsettia (Euphorbia pulcherrima) is one of the most popular winter holiday plants; a native to the area around Taxco, Mexico, the poinsettia was introduced to us by Joel R. Poinsett, the first U.S. ambassador to Mexico.

It is interesting to note that in Mexico, poinsettias grow to be large, woody shrubs, often reaching heights above 10 feet. We had these large, house-high shrubs around our home when we lived in Okinawa, Japan, as well — they flourish where the weather is warm all winter.

The poinsettia is a member of the spurge family, and is characterized by small, inconspicuous flowers and large, brightly colored, leaf-like bracts. Poinsettia bracts may be red, pink, white, yellow, speckled or marbled; the most popular color is red, although horticulturists at Oklahoma State University introduced an orange poinsettia for their fans.

Poinsettias are often thought of as poisonous to pets, but research indicates that poinsettias contain no chemicals commonly considered toxic; however, eating the plants is not recommended, and they may cause nausea or vomiting in your pets if they ingest this plant. While most people are not sensitive to the sap, it can cause a mild skin irritation.

How do you care for the poinsettia to keep it beautiful and preserve your Christmas blooms? First, place your plant where it will receive a maximum amount of indoor sunlight, and remember that there are a few problems associated with poinsettia care.

Premature leaf drop is one of the main problems you may encounter. To avoid this, keep your plant out of drafts, as rapid temperature fluctuations will cause this leaf drop; even touching a cold windowpane can cause injury to the bracts. Night temperatures should be no cooler than 60 to 65 degrees, and day temperatures should not exceed 80 degrees.

Additionally, if you fail to water your plant frequently, it will wilt and lose its leaves too. Keep the soil slightly moist but not soggy, and water thoroughly; make sure your pot has good drainage, and empty out any water that may be left in the pot saucer after watering.

Always remove any paper or plastic sleeve, because ethylene gas can accumulate within the sleeve and cause premature flower drop and leaf curling. Fertilization is typically not needed for the first month because the potting mix includes a slow-release fertilizer, but after the first month, fertilize once every two weeks until the plant loses its brightly colored bracts.

Poinsettias are not just plants for Christmas; many of the new poinsettia cultivars will keep their leaves and remain attractive even in summer.

If the plant retains its leaves, treat it like any houseplant. Place it in a sunny location and apply a complete fertilizer containing trace elements once every two weeks.

If your plant drops its leaves, let the soil dry out and keep the plant in a cool location — it still needs some light. In late April or early May, bring the plant out of its resting stage by cutting the stems back to about 3 to 8 inches above the soil.

If there is more than one plant per pot, separate them and replant in individual containers. As soon as the night temperature reaches a minimum of 60 degrees, set your poinsettia outside in a shady location to enjoy the beautiful green leaves all summer long.

To prevent your poinsettia from getting too tall, pinch off or prune the growing tips when they are about 4-6 inches long. If the new shoots grow another 5 inches before late August, repeat the process. Pruning shapes the plant to form an attractive compact growth.

Poinsettias are short-day plants, which means they flower about 10 weeks after the daylight shortens to 12 hours or less. If you want your plant to bloom again for Christmas, place it in full darkness — a closet is ideal — between 5 p.m. and 8 a.m. from early October until late November; put your plant in a sunny window during the day hours, and continue fertilizing until mid-December.

Enjoy your poinsettia this Christmas season, and consider keeping it through the summer. With a little effort, it will reward you with blooms again next year.

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