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Poinsettias — the red standard of the holiday season


More than any flower, one bloom signals holiday season: poinsettias.

But this tradition didn’t get its start until the 1920s. Back then, a San Diego County nurseryman named Paul Ecke took a Mexican native plant that was growing wild along the Southern California coastline and started experimenting. At his ranch in Encinitas, he developed more than 100 new varieties of poinsettias.

Just as important, he figured out how to make poinsettias bloom reliably in late November and early December – just in time for Christmas. He also mastered ways to keep them compact and thrive in pots. In the wild, poinsettias, which are woody perennials, grow up to 12 feet tall and bloom in spring.

Paul Ecke Ranch (ecke.com) still ranks as the world’s poinsettia leader, responsible for about 70 percent of the poinsettias sold in the United States and half of all sales worldwide.

The red or otherwise colored bracts frame the plant’s actual flowers, which appear as yellow clusters at the center of the bracts. The plant drops its bracts and leaves soon after those flowers shed their pollen. For the longest-lasting poinsettias, choose plants with little or no yellow pollen showing.

Contrary to popular belief, poinsettias are not poisonous to humans or pets, although their white sap can cause skin irritation, and nausea if eaten.

How to keep your poinsettia alive

You’ve brought home one of those irresistible potted poinsettias or received one as a gift. How do you keep it beautiful through the holidays?

Today’s poinsettias can last longer than ever, often for months. To help yours stay pretty, follow this advice from Ron Wolford, creator of the Poinsettia Pages:

▪  Place your poinsettia in indirect light after bringing it home. Poinsettias need six hours of light daily (fluorescent light will work).

▪  Keep your plant away from cold windows, warm or cold drafts from furnaces or air conditioners, and open doors and windows.

▪  Poinsettias do best at daytime temperatures of 65 to 70 degrees. Higher temperatures will shorten the plant’s life.

▪  Check the soil daily. Punch holes in the pot’s foil cover so water can drain into a saucer. Water the plant when the soil is dry. Allow water to drain into the saucer and discard excess. Wilted plants will tend to drop bracts sooner.

▪ Don’t fertilize poinsettias while in bloom. If kept past the holiday season, apply a houseplant fertilizer once a month.

▪  New varieties of poinsettias last longer. It’s not uncommon for poinsettias to retain their bracts for several months.