As you are reading this, Beth may be taking down the Christmas tree.
She is no Scrooge, by any means. Our house has been full of lights and fir boughs, and our mantle is scattered with little trees that may, or may not, be shaped from toilet bowl cleaners. We still have a smattering of holiday treats, although my mom’s date-nut bars didn’t even make it to Christmas Day.
But with the new year comes a new beginning. The tree comes down, decorations get packed, the amaryllises finally bloom and we have to decide what happens with the pots of poinsettias.
Poinsettias. An interesting plant that has an interesting association with the holiday season. The plant is named after the first U.S. ambassador to Mexico, Joel Roberts Poinsett. His love for plants had him bring home a unique plant, which eventually took on the name “poinsettia” (Euphorbia pulcherrima) in the 1830s.
Jump forward about a century and along came a German family, the Eckes, who had a nursery and farm in Southern California, and they were looking to make some extra money in the lean early winter months when nothing else was blooming. Red and green plants during Christmas soon equaled a craze that made its way to Hollywood television sets; and we all know what happens when we see something we like on the telly: we start dressing like the Fresh Prince of Bel Air.
Back to what happens with the pots of poinsettias on our tabletops: They can be saved if you are willing to work for it. Continue to give the plant plenty of natural light and try to keep the space between 60 and 70 degrees. As the year progresses, water your plant deeply only when it is dry. If the lower leaves seem to be drying and falling off, water more. If they seem to be turning yellow and falling off, water less. Fertilize once a month and watch for pests like whiteflies, aphids and fungus gnats.
Don’t be alarmed if your plant looks pretty pitiful in March and April. Just like you, it’s itching to get outside (but resist until June to do that). Before that happens, work on shaping the plant: cut back original stems to 4 to 6 inches, leaving back a few leaves that will allow for additional new shoots to emerge from the nodes of the remaining leaves. (Note: Poinsettias are members of the Euphorbiaceae family of plants. When you cut their stems or leaves they have a white, latex sap that may cause skin irritation.)
In May, you may want to repot into a slightly larger container. And then in June, it’s time to cut off the upper 2 to 3 inches of leggy or tall stems, removing the top leaves. Once you feel that your location is safe from freezes, move the potted plant out to a lightly shaded location. Feel free to continue to trim overly tall growth through the end of August.
Come September, bring the plant inside and start your horticultural trickery. In order to get the flower bracts red, artificially create these long night conditions needed from late September until you start to see the leaves changing color, usually around the end of November or early December.
Every day, around 5 or 6 p.m., cover your plant with a large box that does not allow light to reach the plant or place the plant in a completely dark closet. The next morning around 8 a.m., remove the box or place the plant back in the light. This will ensure that your plants get at least 14 hours of complete darkness each night and should be repeated for about eight weeks. Once you start to see the bracts changing color, you can stop covering the plant each night.
Darrin Parmenter is the director and horticulture agent of the La Plata County Extension Office. Reach him at [email protected] or 382-6464.Darrin Parmenter