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Make the most of your holiday poinsettia

By Bodie V. Pennisi
University of Georgia

If you're going to decorate your home for the holidays, you just have to include at least one poinsettia in your plans. No other flower conveys the holiday spirit quite like a traditional red poinsettia.

Getting the most from your poinsettias is easy if you follow these tips:

  • Buy Georgia-grown poinsettias. Locally grown plants may cost more, but they have better keeping quality. They're usually sold to florist shops and garden centers.
  • Choose a size that will match your decorative needs. Georgia growers are experts in producing more than 20 poinsettia varieties in a dozen sizes and shapes, including some gorgeous 18-inch hanging baskets and 3-gallon floor planters.
  • Besides the traditional red, other colors are available: strong white, creamy white, light pink, solid pink, bright orange-red and deep purple-red. Some varieties feature attractive speckled and marbled bracts.
  • Select plants with fully colored and expanded bracts (the colored parts of the plant -- the actual flowers are the yellow centers). Avoid plants with too much green around the bract edges -- this is a sign that the plant was shipped before it was mature enough.
  • Select poinsettias with dense, rich green leaves all along the stem, well branched and proportioned with the container about two-and-one-half times the height of the pot.
  • Look closely for possible "hitchhikers." One common poinsettia pest is the silverleaf whitefly, which inhabits the underside of the leaves and sucks the juices and sap from the plant. This is the giveaway: when whiteflies excrete the plant's juices, they drop a "honeydew" onto the leaves below. Don't buy plants with sticky leaves and dots on the undersides of the leaves that look like scale -- they're actually the whitefly nymphs.
  • Don't forget to examine the plant's roots. Carefully slip off the pot and look for white and light tan roots that have grown to the sides of the pot. Brown roots or few roots may be signs of disease.
  • Don't buy a plant with weak stems, few bracts or any signs of wilting, breaking or drooping. Often in stores, poinsettias are crowded. Sometimes they're displayed in paper, plastic or mesh sleeves. A poinsettia needs space, and the longer it remains sleeved, the faster its quality will deteriorate.
  • When transporting your prize poinsettia, protect it from chilling winds and temperatures below 50 degrees Fahrenheit. You can place the poinsettia into a sleeve or a large shopping bag.
  • Once in your home, you can put your poinsettias anywhere you like. They'll last about three weeks in fairly dark places. Don't place them near cold drafts or excessive heat, though, or near appliances, fireplaces or ventilating ducts.
  • Water it only when the soil feels dry to the touch, but don't let it wilt, or the leaves may drop off. Overwatering is one of the common causes of plant loss. Don't leave the plant in standing water -- this, too, may cause its leaves to drop. Always remove a plant from any decorative container before watering, and allow the water to drain completely.
  • Don't fertilize your plant during the blooming season. This will cause a rapid decline of plant quality.
  • If you want to keep your poinsettia after the holiday season is over, move it to a bright spot -- either a south, east or west window. Eventually, the bracts will start to fall off. By early April, cut the plant back, leaving four to six nodes or segments in the stem. At this point, you can grow it outdoors in full sun. Fertilize it weekly with a balanced, all-purpose fertilizer at the same rate you give to houseplants.
  • Trim the poinsettia in June. Plant it in a 1-gallon pot or a large indoor planter. Trim new growth again around July 1 and again by mid-August. Continue to fertilize throughout spring and summer, applying nutrition once every two to three weeks as fall nears. When grown with adequate water and nutrition, poinsettias can grow as high as 5 feet.
  • Poinsettias are proven to be nonpoisonous and safe for display around children and pets.

(Bodie Pennisi is a Cooperative Extension horticulturist with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.)

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