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Poinsettia, the Christmas Star

POINSETTIA - THE HALLMARK OF CHRISTMAS

Generally in mid-November around the Pacific Northwest, we suddenly see department stores, box stores, nurseries, and grocery stores suddenly come alive with many of the startlingly beautiful colors of poinsettias! This is a sure sign that if you haven't already done your Christmas shopping, you'd better at least get your gift list finished because Christmas will arrive in a little over a month!

Over the years, poinsettias have come a long way from the basic, but eye-catching, cardinal-red "flowers" with bright green leaves. Today, they have been hybridized so successfully they are now available in pinks, whites, all shades of red from deep crimson to coral, variegated, mottled and "splotched"! They are available in all sizes from miniatures to fully grown plants 4 or 5 feet tall, covered with blossoms.

Poinsettias are also known as Christmas Star, lobster plant and Mexican flame leaf. It's botanical name is Euphorbia pulcherrima and they are succulents. They grow as wild shrubs in Mexico, parts of California and some of the states that border with Mexico.

POINSETTIA FLOWERS

Did you know that colorful poinsettia flowers are not flowers at all? What we commonly call the flowers are a cluster of "bracts" or small, leaf-like parts at the base of the flower. The actual flower is the yellow cluster in the center. if you compare the petals of the flowers to the leaves, you'll see a very close resemblance to leaves, rather than actual flower petals.

HOW TO PICK A POINSETTIA

Take care when picking the best poinsettia plant for your holiday decor. It's probably a good idea to buy your plants when they first appear in the displays - before full winter weather has set in. The reason being, these are tropical plants and are sensitive to drastic changes from warm to cold temperatures. The further advanced into winter, the better the chance the plants have been exposed to temperatures that cause injury to the poinsettia - they get nipped in the bud.

Try to find plants that actually are healthy looking! You can tell at a glance if the leaves are wilted and drooping, fading or yellowing and if they just don't have that pizazz - the special look of a well-cared for plant. Sometimes, the plants have not been cared for during shipping - going without water for long periods of time, or they may have also been exposed to temperatures well below their comfort zone. In most cases, if the plant has been neglected during shipping, it will not snap back once you get it home.

CARING FOR POINSETTIAS

Don't place your poinsettia where it receives direct hot sunlight. Although they grow very well in sunlight in the wild, the specially grown hybrids we have today are not accustomed to overexposure of sunlight. Best to place them where they receive filtered or dappled sun (through blinds or curtains) or in a room that has the best bright light from windows.

Take care that these plants are NOT subjected to cold or cool drafts! Cold drafty air from windows or entry doors does not make a comfortable environment for your tropical poinsettia. Normal room temperature is best.

Sometimes you may see racks of poinsettias and other tropical plants being brought into the big home improvement stores and left to stand near the outside delivery doors. The cold air swooping around those plants is NOT good and the plants seldom recover from the shock.

WATERING AND FEEDING POINSETTIAS

When the soil begins to look on the dry side and the leaves just might be getting a little soft or droopy, you should then give the plant a thorough watering with room temperature water. If the plant is in the common foil wrapper that doesn't allow the water to run through, remove the wrapper and allow the plant to drain so the roots are not standing in water. You may then replace it into the wrapper. During the two or three months you have this plant on display, it will not need fertilizing.

IMPORTANT FACTS ABOUT POINSETTIAS

Poinsettias have a whitish, sticky sap called "latex". Ingesting the sap or parts of the plant (leaves, stems, "flowers") may cause a toxic reaction in humans and pets. Please exercise due caution if you have small children in your home as they are often attracted to the colorful plants and just want to pick on them. Be sure to wash hands thoroughly after handling the poinsettias.

Also watch puppies and cats around the plants. Puppies might chew on them to satisfy a chewing instinct. Cats will often chew on houseplants to take the place of roughage needed for digestion - a common trait for house pets who don't have access to fresh grass.