Poinsettias to the Rescue
Tried and true, but never tired, poinsettias remain the premiere living holiday decorating element. Brilliant reds are by far the most popular, but today’s poinsettias offer a varied palette of hues and forms to compliment any decorating scheme. Whether you mix them up in container combinations or let them stand alone, poinsettias are always dramatic, always handsome, and always colorful.
In addition to their beauty, poinsettias are steeped in history and lore. The shape of the poinsettia flower and leaves have been compared to the Star of Bethlehem which led the Wise Men to Jesus. The red colored leaves symbolize the blood of Christ, while the white poinsettia leaves represent His purity.
In their native land of Mexico, Aztecs had many uses for them including using the flowers (which are actually special types of leaves known as bracts) to make a purple dye for clothes and cosmetics. The milky white sap was made into a medicine to treat fevers. Today the sap is called latex.
There is an old Mexican legend about how poinsettias and Christmas come together. A poor Mexican girl called Pepita had no present to give to the baby Jesus at the Christmas Eve Services. As she made her way to the chapel, her cousin Pedro tried to cheer her up.
“Pepita,” he said, “I’m sure that even the smallest gift, given by someone who loves Him, will make Jesus happy.”
So Pepita picked a small handful of weeds from the roadside and fashioned them into a bouquet. As she walked through the chapel and approached the altar, she remembered what Pedro had said. She knelt down and put the bouquet at the bottom of the nativity scene. Suddenly, the bouquet of weeds burst into bright red flowers. Everyone who saw them was certain they had witnessed a miracle. From that day on, the bright red flowers were known as the Flores de Noche Buena, or Flowers of the Holy Night.
Today we have a stunning range of poinsettias from which to choose for our holiday decorating. The big, brilliant “blooms” instantly brighten up any setting. For those who want to keep the handsome plants beyond the holidays, it is possible, if proper attention is given to their needs.
According to Dr. Leonard Perry, Extension Professor at the University of Vermont, protecting the poinsettia from cold drafts and providing plenty of bright light or sunshine will keep it healthy through the holiday season. Remember, this plant is native to Mexico and is one that thrives in full sun. Water only when the planting medium begins to feel dry, and never allow the plant to sit in water. Here is a “calendar” for poinsettia culture to extend the cheer and delight of these special plants.
Specific daylight and darkness hours are the key to getting a poinsettia to bloom again. Dr. Perry cleverly suggests associating your poinsettia care with the holidays.
• On New Year’s Day he suggests fertilizing the plant with an all-purpose houseplant fertilizer, keeping the plant in bright light with adequate moisture. These steps will help prolong the seasonal bloom.
• On Valentine’s Day you may have to cut the plant back if it has become leggy.
• For St. Patrick’s Day, add some commercial potting mix to the pot, check for insects such as scale or mites, and water as needed.
• By Memorial Day you can trim branches back a couple inches to promote side branching. It may also be time to repot the poinsettia in a commercial potting mix.
• Father’s Day is the time to move your poinsettia outdoors, to a location with bright but not direct sunshine which could “burn” foliage.
• Fourth of July is when your plant can move into a location that gets full sun. Fertilize once a week to promote growth and continue watering schedule.
• By Labor Day your plant should be returned indoors to a location with at least six or more hours of bright, direct light. Continue to water but reduce fertilizing schedule to once a month.
• The Autumnal Equinox is when the poinsettia needs 13 hours of complete darkness, preferably at temperatures about 60 degrees and 11 hours of bright light each day. Try covering the plant with a box or place in a closet. Water as needed and fertilize once a month.
• Thanksgiving is when the poinsettia can come out of the dark, but it will still need at least six hours of bright light each day. Begin reducing the watering schedule and discontinue the fertilizer.
• By Christmas your poinsettia should be in full bloom to enjoy for another holiday.
NOTE: Poinsettias can be toxic to pets but not to people, though some people may react with a rash from contact to sap.