Keeping Poinsettias Alive Past Christmas

GOOD GARDENING

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Among the most popular gifts for the holidays are indoor seasonal plants. Poinsettias add bright natural colors and scents to holiday décor. Making the colors last, and keeping the plant alive for enjoyment during seasons to come can challenge even those with the greenest of thumbs.

Most plants offered by retailers for seasonal giving are rushed by climate controlled carrier from greenhouses in temperate climates to grocers, discount houses and nurseries with disparate display conditions. Coming from a warm, moist place to a dry, drafty spot will cause stresses that may not show up for several days or weeks to a plant.

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Poinsettias add an attractive splash of color to any holiday table. But keeping them alive past Christmas can be a chore.

Plants prepared for seasonal use may also have been forced in a greenhouse resulting in a poorly developed root system. These plants are also fed so vigorously that the forced growth could result in the plant having no more energy to survive beyond a few weeks.

A poinsettia can be nurtured into a lovely year-round house and patio plant and even coaxed into blooming next winter.

Until the 1920s, poinsettias were grown in greenhouses and sold only as cut flowers, imported from Mexico and South America.

In 1925, Joel Poinsett who was the U.S. Ambassador to Mexico, sent home cuttings of Euphorbia pulcherrima. These plants had been cultivated by the Aztecs long before Europeans arrived in the western hemisphere. Pulcherrima was used in midwinter celebrations and its colorful bracts were used to make dyes, while the milky latex sap was used to counteract fever. Although the plant is not poisonous, it is not edible and can cause gastric discomfort. It should be kept out of reach of pets and small children.

Prolonged bloom will result from making sure the plant has about six hours of indirect, natural daylight, but not direct sunlight. Plants must be kept out of cold drafts, away from excessive heat, in ideal temperatures of 65 to 70 F during the day, and 60 to 62 F at night.

Removing damaged or diseased leaves will keep a plant stronger. Keep soil moderately moist, watering thoroughly when it feels dry to the touch. Poinsettias should not be allowed to sit in water, and do not need to be fertilized while in bloom, but to promote new growth, apply a well balanced indoor plant food once a month after the holidays.

Poinsettias receiving south and east sun may be placed outside on a shaded patio during the summer months. According to the Colorado State University, it is possible to get these plants into bloom the following winter, but it is a complicated process, and must be strictly followed.

After a plant has passed its stage of usefulness, usually by late March or early April, remove the bracts and part of the stem. This cutting back can be done any time through mid-July, depending on the desired final size and shape of the plant. Leave three or four leaves on each remaining stem.

During late spring and early summer, move the plant to the next larger size pot. Use a well-drained potting medium, preferably heat pasteurized. Use any well-drained soil, such as a blend of equal parts sphagnum peat moss, vermiculite and/or perlite. Thoroughly mix 1 tablespoon of treble super-phosphate fertilizer (0-46-0) in each gallon of soil mix. Apply a slow release fertilizer to the soil surface.

If all this sounds like too much work, perhaps settling down with a cup of hot cocoa and a stack of new seed catalogs will suffice to keep the gardening demons at bay. Just in case the mailman isn't stuffing the mailbox with catalogs yet. www.highcountrygardens.com, (800) 925-9387 and Plants of the Southwest, www.plantsofthesouthwest.com, (800) 788-7333 are two reliable sources to contact for catalogs.

Western Native Seed, www.westernnativeseed.com or (719) 942-3935, which specializes in native plant seeds for the Rocky Mountains and Western Plains has an exceptional website, and also a print catalog.

Territorial Seed Company, www.territorialseed.com or (541) 942-9547 is an excellent source of flower, herb and vegetable seeds that do well in our hot day, cold night climate of summer.

Contact Wildseed Farms www.wildseedfarms.com or (800) 848-0078 for wildflower seeds and comprehensive information on how to grow them.

Garden maintenance for January is minimal, but pay attention to the weather.

MULCH: Mix some manure with straw or oak leaves and pine needles or wood chips and spread around the base of trees, shrubs and perennials. Winter rain and snow will break down these materials and feed the soil, while the bulk will protect roots from freezing and will hold in moisture.

WATER: Keep a garden journal and when Mother Nature has not provided rain or snow for 3 weeks, start checking soil moisture. When top three or four inches of soil are dry, use a soaker hose at mid-day to water trees and shrubs. Buy a moisture meter and rain gauge to gain accuracy as to how much water is really necessary.

PLANT: Visit a nursery and look at low water use plants with good "bones" to provide winter interest. If now is not the time to plant those selected, enter their names in a garden journal, for later reference.

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