Demystifying Poinsettias

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(HOST) Commentator Charlie Nardozzi reflects on the selection and care of one of our favorite holiday decorative plants.

(NARDOZZI) Even though this plant is sold for a 6-week period, it’s the top selling potted plant in the country. This plant is best known for its colorful leaves that aren’t leaves and it has been wrongly accused of being poisonous. This plant is the poinsettia.

The poinsettia is actually a perennial shrub in the Euphorbia family that can grow up to 10 feet tall in its native Mexico. The sticky-white sap was used by the Aztecs to control fevers, and the leaves were used to make red dye.

The poinsettia plant came to this country back in the 1800’s via the United States ambassador to Mexico, Joel Roberts Poinsett. Not only was Ambassador Poinsett a diplomat, he was also an amateur botanist. In the 1820’s he brought back a cutting of this colorful shrub from the Mexican countryside and started growing it in his South Carolina greenhouse. Over the years, it quickly caught on as a favorite holiday plant because the brachts (or modified leaves) turn red during the shorter days of early winter – just in time for Christmas.

What started as a cutting from a wild bush has spurred a 200-million-dollar-a-year holiday industry. There are more than 100 varieties of poinsettias available today. Poinsettias come in colors including red, white, pink, peach, gold, marbled and purple.

But enough facts. What you really what to know is how to choose the best poinsettia and how to take care of it. Well, here goes. Choose a poinsettia with dark green foliage right down to the bottom of the pot and brachts that are colored completely. Don’t choose poinsettias with dark green edges on the brachts. They won’t color up. The plants should be 2 to 3 times taller than the diameter of the pot. Check the flowers. These are the small “buds” at the base of the bracht. If the flowers are green and still fresh, the colorful brachts will last longer than if the flowers have yellow pollen showing.

Once home, unwrap the poinsettia from its plastic wrap, keep the plant away from cold drafts and keep the soil moist, but discard any excess water in the pot’s saucer. Keep the room temperature between 60 and 70 degrees during the day and 10 degrees cooler at night.

Don’t worry about young children or pets getting poisoned from eating poinsettia leaves. It’s an old wives’ tale. Researchers at Ohio State University found that a 50-pound child would have to eat 500 leaves to even get a tummy ache.

Enjoy the plants for as long as they are healthy, then toss them into the compost. You can get poinsettias to reflower next winter, but personally I think it’s more trouble than it’s worth. They require care all summer and a completely dark period for 15 hours a day from October to December to color the leaves.

Oh, yes: and if you are looking for the perfect day to purchase your holiday poinsettia, try tomorrow. It’s National Poinsettia Day.

This is Charlie Nardozzi in Shelburne.

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