Christmas is a time for myth and legend.
To this day, my mom believes in Santa. To be clear, she believes in the Christmas Spirit, but to her it's one and the same. When we were kids, the Christmas Spirit shopped at places like Sears. Evidently, he just couldn't pass up their deals.
Poinsettias are a favorite of the Christmas Spirit. They're also mired in a myth. In this case, the poisonous myth.
There are plants inside our house that, if consumed, can be harmful. Philodendron is one of them. Easter lily is moderately to severely toxic to cats, and oleander sap is well-known to be dangerous to people and pets.
Poinsettias, however, are not poisonous.
Research indicates that if a 50-pound child ate 500 bracts, he might have a slight tummy ache. When my kids were 50 pounds, they wouldn't eat five spinach leaves dipped in sugar, let alone 500. They couldn't eat 500 leaf-shaped cookies.
Poinsettias likely get this reputation because they are in the Euphorbiaceae family, which does include poisonous plants. Similarly, tomatoes are in the Solanaceae family which also includes deadly nightshade.
Every office, store and waiting room will have at least one poinsettia this season. Introduced to the United States in 1825, they have become one of the most popular potted plants in the horticulture industry. And they're no longer just red. There are more than 100 varieties, including pink, white, plum, and combinations thereof. Red, however, is still the most popular.
The vivid colors are unique. Where most plants develop colorful flowers or foliage, poinsettias do so on the bracts: modified leaves born on the flower stalk. It's difficult to distinguish a bract from a leaf. Other than the color, they are similar in shape and size. The flowers are uniquely yellow but small and overpowered by the vibrant bracts. If there is no pollen on the flowers, the poinsettia is considered fresh. But as long as the poinsettia is blooming, the bracts will maintain color.
When buying poinsettias, be sure there is plenty of green foliage below the bracts, which is essential to photosynthesis. Acceptable standards for size are poinsettias that are 21/2 times taller than the diameter of the pot. A healthy poinsettia can hold color through Valentine's Day.
However, it's not just the Christmas Spirit that loves poinsettias. Whiteflies do, too. If you shake the plant and small white moths flutter out, avoid purchasing. If keeping poinsettias outside, bring inside the house when the temperature drops below 50 degrees. Brief exposures to cold can cause leaf and bract drop.
When keeping poinsettias inside, find a spot that gets at least six hours of indirect sunlight. Intense light can cause leaf and bract drop. Also, pay attention to cold drafts from open doors or areas next to heating ducts. Poinsettias prefer temperatures between 60 and 70 degrees, which applies to most homes and offices. Water properly but allow the upper few inches to dry since poinsettias are susceptible to root rot.
If you've got the inclination, poinsettias can be kept for next year's holiday season. In May, cut stems to about 4 inches above the soil. You can repot at this time if desired. Begin fertilizing on a standard foliage plant schedule. Once the minimum outdoor temperature remains above 60 degrees, place outside in diffuse sunlight. Around July, begin pinching back the stems to thicken the canopy, leaving about four to five leaves per stem.
Poinsettias will have to be tricked to achieve color before the Christmas Spirit arrives. They are short-day plants so in order to get full color, put them in complete darkness from 5 p.m. to 8 a.m. every day. A closet or box will work.
It takes four to six weeks for color to develop, so begin covering in October.
Or just buy a new one for about $10. If you're near Trident Technical College, buy one from the horticulture students for $8.50.
Remember, the Christmas Spirit likes a bargain.
Tony Bertauski is a horticulture instructor at Trident Technical College. To give feedback, email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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