Bartlett on Gardening: The Christmas Flower

No flower says Christmas more than the poinsettia. This Mexican wildflower was introduced to the United States in 1828 by Joel Poinsett, our first ambassador to Mexico. Within a decade, the exotic-looking plant became a holiday tradition. At that time, it was grown from cuttings in greenhouses and sold as a cut flower.

The poinsettia is a member of the euphorbia family of plants which are also called

spurges. Wild poinsettias are 8 to 12 feet tall and 3 to 8 feet wide. They are day-length sensitive, blooming when nights are 14 hours long. The flowers, called cyathia, are the small yellow and green clusters encircled by the brilliant red petals which are actually modified leaves called bracts. Blooming from November through January, poinsettia drops its leaves for the rest of winter. The milky sap was used by the Aztecs to treat fevers. They made a reddish purple dye from the bracts.

Poinsettias are not cold tolerant, so it comes as no surprise that southern California is an epicenter of hybridization. Paul Ecke began selling them as cut flowers in 1906. They were so popular that he devoted all his time to growing, breeding and distributing them. In 1920, Ecke introduced a poinsettia that could be sold as a potted plant. "Mother plants" were shipped by rail all over the nation for propagation in greenhouses. In recent decades, much effort has gone into developing bushy, uniformly-sized plants that hold their bracts longer.

Today poinsettias are the top-selling potted plant. There are many colors of bracts to choose among. When selecting a plant, examine the cyathia. They should be tight little buds. Hustle home with your poinsettia, as sitting in a chilly car could doom its decorative value. When you get home, place it away from drafts in indirect light. Water sparingly with tepid water, mist every other day, and feed every two weeks with a high nitrogen fertilizer. Watering is critical. Too much and the plants wilt or drop leaves or worse, develop root rot. Too little water is just as bad; the stems wilt and the leaves turn yellow.

I grew up on the central coast of California where daytime highs are in the 60s year-round. After the holidays, my folks planted the poinsettias on the east side of the house. These grew to about 6 feet and bloomed in the winter.

Of coarse we cannot grow them outdoors here, but if you love caring for a needy houseplant, you can keep your poinsettia. After it drops its leaves, reduce watering to monthly. Cut it back in early spring and keep it in shade. Repot it in the summer using a mix with superb drainage. It can go outside for a summer vacation. Bring it back inside in September and place it in the dark for 14 hours a day until Halloween. When new growth appears, feed and water weekly. Hopefully, it will reward your efforts with blooms next winter.

Native Californian Ann Bartless never lets lack of experience with a plant stop her from trying it in the ornamental beds around her home.

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