By Ken Sakamoto, Star-Bulletin
Poinsettia: The color of the holidays.
THINK of it as a bouquet of fresh flowers rather than a potted plant, and you'll do just fine with your Christmas poinsettia. The living room sized 6-inch pot will cost less than $10 and the flowers will last through January or longer. You can't expect that from an arrangement of dendrobiums or anthuriums, which will commence to look droopy and brown around the edges after about 10 days.
Pick poinsettia for color
Just about every professional landscaper discourages planting poinsettias in your garden after the holidays, and encourages throwing them out. They become leggy and the deep red is almost too strong a color accent in most gardens. If you do save the plant, landscapers suggest mixing the colors -- add pink, marble or yellow poinsettias in a mass planting to tone down the Santa Claus suit red.
Plant the poinsettias out of the wind and in a sunny place, such as against a wall. Expect a sprawling shrub that can grow to 18 feet without pruning. So prune the plants back to the green leaves, removing the flowers -- yes, we know they aren't flowers but bracts -- but anyway, take off the colored parts of the plant. As each new shoot develops seven leaves, pinch back to four leaves to create a bushy plant. But quit pinching after Labor Day and the blooms should appear in November as the days grow shorter.
Poinsettias are now in every garden shop and supermarket in town, and in several colors in addition to the traditional red. The newer cultivars are in shades of yellow, pink and rose or are marbled with ivory. The bracts, which have the color, grow from the tiny central button which is actually the poinsettia flower. Select plants with large bracts that are fully colored. This is particularly important with the pastel bracts, which may never mature fully after you've taken the plant home.
The flowers should have little or no yellow powder showing in their centers. The powder is pollen, and indicates that the plant has already dropped some of its bracts and will not last as long as a younger plant. Select plants with dark green foliage for the full length of the stem. Yellow leaves or bare stems indicate poor watering, poor fertilizing or a root disease.
Fred Rauch, extension specialist in horticulture, and Fred Criley, horticulturist, at the University of Hawaii, have written a flyer on the care of poinsettias. They point out that most homes in Hawaii have the ideal temperature for keeping poinsettias indoors: 70 to 75 degrees. during the day and no lower than 60 degrees at night. Don't place your plant near an air-conditioner or an open window, which can increase water loss and cause the leaves to drop.
Place your plant in a well-lit location, but avoid direct sunlight which will dry it out. Poinsettias tolerate sun better than shade, but should not be shifted suddenly from one condition to another. This stresses the poor plants to the point where they will drop their leaves and bracts. The U.H. horticulturists say that recent research suggests that poinsettias hold up better if a lit lamp is kept near the plant at night. Or you might place it where it receives street lighting through a window, allowing the city to foot the electric bill.
If you have been given a poinsettia plant as a gift, it probably came dressed up in a decorative foil covering the plastic pot. If you choose to leave the foil on the pot, take a pencil or pair of scissors and poke a hole in the bottom of the foil so that water will run out into a saucer you have placed underneath. Better yet, remove the pot from the foil and put it into a basket or ceramic pot with a dish at the bottom. Then remember to discard the water that will collect in the dish.
Poinsettias are easily overwatered, and correct watering is essential for the maximum life of the plant. When the soil surface is dry to the touch, water the plant in the kitchen sink until the water drains freely from the drainage hole in the container. Don't leave the plant standing in water or the roots will rot from a lack of air circulation.
But that doesn't mean it needs no water at all. Poinsettias will wilt from lack of water, and may drop their leaves from severe dehydration. If wilting does occur, Criley and Rauch recommend watering the plant thoroughly once to moisten the entire soil mass, allowing the water to drain through, and then again after five minutes. You can also spray the leaves with water, but this can be a messy process indoors.
Fertilizer is not generally required, once the bracts are developed. If the poinsettia has been planted in the ground, it can be fertilized with a complete chemical fertilizer such as a 20-20-20 or 20-5-10. Follow the instructions on the container and lean toward the minimum suggestions. Over-fertilization will also cause leaf drop.
The poinsettia has been associated with Christmas not only because of its color, but because it is a short-day plant. In the northern hemisphere, poinsettias are at the peak of their bloom in December. They are native to Mexico, where they are called flor de Pascua (flower of Christmas) or flor de noche buena (Christmas Eve flower).
But we call them poinsettias, for Joel R. Poinsett, the American minister to Mexico from 1825 to 1829. He sent seeds of the plant to his home in Charleston, S.C., in 1828 where they were first propagated in the United States. For more than 100 years, a poinsettia was red. Then hybridizers introduced pastel poinsettias and plants with double bracts.
It was thought by the more optimistic growers that an all-winter market might be established for the lighter-colored plants, but so far, no luck. People associate poinsettias, regardless of their color, with Christmas. So enjoy your plants through the holidays and then feed your compost pile.
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