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Caring for Poinsettias
By Dr. Leonard Perry,
Extension Professor University of Vermont

Poinsettias have become synonymous with the holiday season. In fact,
December 12 has been proclaimed by an Act of Congress as National Poinsettia
Day to commemorate the death of Joel Poinsetta who introduced this Mexican
native plant to the U.S.   

Many varieties have been developed over the last few decades, with currently
well over 100 different varieties in a range of flower colors and styles.  To get
the longest life and enjoyment from the ones you purchase or receive as gifts,
follow a few simple tips.
Start with Proper Selection

This means choosing plants with healthy, dark green foliage and brightly
colored "bracts".  Bracts are actually colored leaves that look like flower petals,
but aren't.  Poinsettias are available with red, white, pink, peach, yellow,
marbled (pink and white patterns), or bi-colored bracts.  Still most poinsettias
grown and sold are red, but if you want to be different, or "design" with them,
look for one of these other colors.  
Try Some Newer Varieties of Poinsettias

Some of the newer selections include red with white spots as in the cultivars
(cultivated variety) with the name 'Jingle Bells'.  There are variations in pink
from bright to a soft peppermint to rose to salmon.  One of my favorites has
cream, rose and pink, and goes by the name 'Monet Twilight'.  Reds range from
bright to dark maroon, almost purple. Some "marbles" can be white and pink in
roughly equal amounts, or more of one color.  There are even double flowers
with more bracts, such as the red 'Valentine' and the Winter Rose series
containing several colors.  There is even a red poinsettia with green and white
variegated leaves.
Leaves Should be Green

Green leaves should be just that, not yellowing or falling off, signs of poor
culture and temperatures.  Don't buy drooping plants, a sign they've been
stressed from lack of water.  If a plant is wilted, but the soil is wet, the plant
may have a root rot disease.  Plants crowded together for more than a few days
may lose bracts prematurely.  
The "true" flowers are found in clusters in the center of the colored bracts, and
are called "cyathia". Poinsettias are technically in flower when these
pollen-bearing clusters are open.  Longest life comes from choosing plants with
these cyathia not yet open, or just opening.
Look at Shape and Proportion

You should consider the shape and proportion of the plant. While plant height
and pot size aren't significant individually, the relationship between them is
important for the best-looking plant. The ratio of plant-to-pot size should be
about two to one (a 12-inch plant in a six-inch pot, for example.)
Protect from Cold

Poinsettias are extremely sensitive to cold and freezing temperatures, so make
sure your plant is wrapped when carrying it between the store and your car
when outdoor temperatures are below 50 degrees (F). Never transport it in the
trunk where it is apt to freeze, even in protective wrapping.  Buy on warmer
days if possible.
Poinsettias are not Poisonous

If you are concerned that poinsettias are poisonous, don't be.  This myth was
based on a false report many decades ago.  Poinsettias have been shown by
scientific studies at Ohio State University to not be poisonous, and poisonous
plant books only list occasional cases of vomiting if enough leaves are
ingested.  To avoid even this, keep plants away from children and pets as you
would harmful household products.
Place in a Good Location

To enjoy your poinsettia for as long as possible, place it in an area with
sufficient natural light to read fine print, and away from heat outlets and drafts
from open doors and windows. At least 6 hours of direct light daily is ideal.
Ideal day temperatures should be between 60 and 70 degrees, nights between
55 and 65 degrees.           
Provide uniformly moist soil with good drainage.  It's better to let plants get a
bit dry than to keep too wet, causing roots to rot. If pots are in saucers, don't let
water remain in saucers.  If pots are in decorative foil, punch a few holes in the
bottom to allow excess water to drain.
Fertilize Poinsettias

Poinsettias benefit from regular fertilization after bloom. Use a complete,
water-soluble fertilizer at the rate and frequency recommended on the label.
With good care in the home, poinsettias often retain their colored bracts for four
to six months, or even longer.  Most tend to tire of seeing these long before their
bracts have faded.
Store in Darkness to Preserve

If you do decide to hold your poinsettias until next fall, remember that they
need darkness (13 hours, uninterrupted, as in a dark closet) every night from
the end of September to Thanksgiving.  Just remember to take plants out of the
dark during the day and to give bright light.  Most find it easier to buy new
ones each year, with plants of better quality having been grown under ideal
greenhouse conditions. An early December visit to a local greenhouse, full of
thousands of plants all in bloom, makes a memorable outing all should
experience if you get the chance.