DALY: Colorful poinsettias brighten the holiday season

Timothy Daly

Timothy Daly

Many colorful ornamental plants are used for decorations during the holidays. One of the most popular and well known is the poinsettias. They bring warmth and beauty to our homes, offices, houses of worship and other places. If given the appropriate care, poinsettias will prosper throughout the season.

Poinsettias are native to Mexico, and they are closely related to the milkweed plants. The plant is named after Joel Poinsett, the first U.S. ambassador to Mexico, who introduced the poinsettia to the United States in the early 1800s. Poinsettias have brightly colored bracts, which are actually modified leaves that are red, white, pink or cream colors. The actual flowers of the poinsettia are the small yellow blooms in the center of the colorful bracts. They are classified as short day plants, along with Christmas cacti and chrysanthemums, meaning the decreasing daylight hours of fall initiate flowering.

Purchase plants that have fully mature, thoroughly colored bracts with an abundance of dark, rich green foliage all the way down the stem. Avoid those with excessive amounts of green around the edges of the bracts, which is a sign the plants were shipped before they were fully matured. They should have a balanced, full and attractive appearance from all sides. The plants need to have stiff stems, good bract and leaf retention, and show no signs of wilting, breaking or drooping. The plants in the store should be healthy and not suffering from lack of water or any pest infestation.

The poinsettias need to be placed in a location receiving at least six hours of bright light every day. Avoid direct sunlight since it can cause the color of the bracts to fade. Never allow any part of the plant touch cold window panes which could injure them. Also, keep the plants out of areas that are in a cold draft, exposed to excessive heat, are near an appliance, fireplace or ventilating duct.

To keep the bracts from fading, the daytime temperature should not be more than 70 degrees, and the plants need to be kept away from drafts, excessive heat or dry air from appliances, fireplaces or ventilating ducts. Temperatures that drop below 50 degrees can cause chilling injuries leading to premature leaf drop. Poinsettias require moderately moist soil. Water the pots thoroughly when the soil feels dry to the touch. Apply enough supplemental water to where it drains from the bottom of the pot. Avoid fertilization when the plant is in bloom. Poinsettias are occasionally troubled by insect pests, especially whiteflies and mealybugs. You can control these pests by the application of insecticidal soaps or in some cases, just remove them by washing the infested plant parts.

In the spring, after the colorful bracts have faded, prune the plant back to about eight inches in height. The plant will look bare after pruning; however, new leaves will emerge up and down the stem from the nodes. Keep the plant near a sunny window and continue to water it regularly. Once the night temperature remains above 50 degrees, poinsettias can be taken outside. Fertilize the plant once a month during the spring, summer and fall with 10-10-10 fertilizer. With proper water and fertilizers, they can grow as high as five feet. Bring them back indoors with the onset of cooler temperatures in the fall.

Poinsettias can be made to flower the following Christmas, although this is somewhat difficult for the homeowner. Being short day plants, they require a long continuous dark period each night for the colorful bracts to form. Beginning around the first of October, the plants require 14 hours of darkness every night. This can be accomplished by putting them in a closet of covering them with a box or other material. They also need receive six to eight hours of bright sunlight daily. The plants will begin to produce the colorful bracts in November of December, depending on the variety and response time.

Poinsettias make a great holiday decoration. They will provide color the indoors if given the appropriate care. Consider getting a few for your home.

Winter is a good time to decide on what to plant in your yard. The 2014 Gwinnett County Extension plant sale will be offering a variety of flowering plants, fruit trees, and other plants of interest. Details will be on the Extension website www.gwinnettextension.com soon.

Timothy Daly is Agricultural and Natural Resource Agent with the Gwinnett County Cooperative Extension. He can be reached at 678-377-4010 or tdaly@uga.edu.