NANCY SZERLAG

Gardening: With care, poinsettias can last for months

Nancy Szerlag

Poinsettias, members of the Euphorbia family, are second only to the Christmas tree as a living holiday icon. Their descendants are wild flowers native to Mexico and the colored portion we think of as petals are actually leaf-like structures called bracts.

Back in the ’50s when houseplants were all the rage, folks liked to keep the plants after the blooms faded in an attempt to get them to “re-bloom” the next Christmas.

Getting the bracts to color up the following year takes patience and persistence. This short day plant requires no more than 10 hours of light and 12 to 14 hours of uninterrupted darkness for a period of eight weeks beginning in October to initiate coloring. A large cardboard box with its interior painted black will make a good nighttime cover. Also, to make the plant produce large compact bracts that look like flowers, it must be treated with a growth hormone at the proper time. These products are quite expensive and not available to the retail market. And those who buy the unusual colored plants would be further disappointed as poinsettias are currently only available in shades of red, pink, cream, white and yellow. The blue, purple and orange flowered plants are actually white flowering poinsettias that have been sprayed with a special paint.

The good news is, if properly cared for, poinsettia bracts can last for many months. Plants purchased when the flowers, those little yellow structures in the center of the bract formation, are in bud, will last longer then those whose flowers have opened or are completely gone.

Over-watering can cause leaf drop as will cold drafts, so if you leave the shiny plastic wrap on the plant, be sure to cut a hole in the bottom so water can drain.

Houseplant books recommend indirect or filtered bright light, but for Michiganders, the sun is so low in the horizon in winter, a south-facing window works. Just don’t place the plant too close to the cold glass.

Water the plant well when the surface of the soil is dry – a slight wilt will not hurt. There is no need to fertilize and doing so may shorten the bract life.

If you care to try and “re-bloom” your poinsettia next December, Dr. Leonard Perry Extension Professor at the University of Vermont features a handy how-to calendar on his website, cleverly tied to popular holidays we celebrate throughout the year, which makes it easy to remember what to do when: http://pss.uvm.edu/ppp/articles/poinsett.htm.

Nancy Szerlag is a master gardener and Metro Detroit freelance writer. Her column appears Fridays in Homestyle. To ask her question go to Yardener.com and click on Ask Nancy. You can also read her previous columns at detroitnewscom/homestyle.