In The Garden
Friday, December 3, 1999

By Suzanne Tswei

By George F. Lee, Star-Bulletin
Colorful poinsettia are a Christmas tradition
in many households.

Colorful choices
for Christmas

Nothing announces the arrival of the Yuletide season as brightly as a pot of crimson colored poinsettia, which is called the flower of Christmas in its native Mexico. And thanks to botanists forever tinkering with plant genes, heat-tolerant poinsettias that are yellow, pink and multicolored also bring holiday cheer in the islands.

As poinsettia plants appear en mass in garden shops and retail stores every December, it's become more difficult to decide what color to buy. The red poinsettia still outsells the others by about 9 to 1, but the nontraditional colors have found a firm foothold in holiday decoration schemes.

"It all depends on personal preference. Some people like to have the yellow if they are using gold or white (decorations) for Christmas. It's something different, not everybody wants the traditional red. We sell a lot of pink, too, and Jingle Bells (mottled pink, red and green) is very popular," says Bill Durston, president of Leilani Nursery Inc., one of the largest wholesale suppliers of poinsettias on Oahu.

The nursery also sells directly to the public and is open every day. Poinsettias in a variety of colors are available in 4-, 6-, 8-inch and 3-gallon pots. Prices are similar to those at other retail outlets, where prices begin at around $4 for a 4-inch pot.

Durston imported 75,000 poinsettia starters from Canada for the holiday season this year. The starters, which are rooted cuttings, began arriving in August at Durston's Waimanalo nursery. They were potted and nursed under the proper conditions for them to reach the bright colors. The first batch was ready for market a couple of weeks before Thanksgiving, and the rest are ready to be shipped out at the beginning and middle of December.

Poinsettia, Euphorbia pulcherrima, needs the shorter days of winter to flower, which means in Hawaii the plant needs human intervention to become the showy Christmas floral symbol. Technically, the part of the poinsettia commonly called the flower is actually brightly colored leaf-like bracts. The real flowers are the cluster of small knobs in the center of the bracts.

"Basically, you can make poinsettia turn color by putting it in the closet in July. That's a lot of trouble, and you may not want to do that. For the plant to turn color, you still need to give it a lot of light during the day," Durston says.

To get the best results, Durston first picks varieties that can turn color fast (within a few months) and then simulates shorter day-light hours by blocking out the light at his nursery during the appropriate times. He also needs Mother Nature's cooperation: lots of sunshine (about 11 hours a day) and no heavy wind or rain that can damage the easily breakable plants.

To choose a healthy, long-lasting poinsettia, check the real flowers to make sure they are tight buds. If the plant has reached its peak, the flowers will be open and often bright yellow pollen is visible. Flowers that are brown or have fallen off are sure signs that the plant has passed its prime. Also choose plants that are free of pests and diseases.

When you get the plant home, give it a healthy dose of water, Durston says. Use about half a gallon of water, which is enough to leach out the fertilizers that can damage the plant if it dries out. Water regularly but do not over water, and keep it out of the rain, wind and heat. With proper care, the plant will last nicely through the holiday season, and perhaps all the way to Easter.

You can try to keep the plant for next year, although the success rate is dismal. Poinsettia is prone to diseases and pests, and will be difficult to maintain for the home gardener. To get the same brilliant color will be difficult, too.

Even for a professional nurseryman like Durston, it is easier to buy healthy plants from elsewhere than to keep the old ones going. But if you are determined, here are some tips:

In April, the poinsettia should be trimmed back and repotted in well-draining soil. The plant can be grown in the ground or left in a pot by a window to get lots of light, Durston says. Then in August, pinch back the new growth to allow the plant to grow to a fuller shape in the winter months. To trick the plant into turning color, move it outside during the day but keep it in total darkness at night, Durston says.

Poinsettia for sale

Bullet Where: Leilani Nursery Inc., 41-630 Kaulukanu St., Waimanalo
Bullet When: 7 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. daily
Bullet Call: 259-9697

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In The Garden by Suzanne Tswei is a regular Friday feature of the
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