Wild Things…
Poinsettia Primer
By Karen Vizzi
   Even non-gardeners delight in the beauty of the poinsettia plant, an enduring symbol of the holiday season. 
    The science of hybridization has made remarkable advances, and poinsettias are one of the species that have benefited. Not just red anymore, today these plants can be found in pink, white, cream and even some pretty marbled varieties. Some of these newer varieties as well as large specimens of any color can be pricey. But if cared for properly, the poinsettia will last for several months as a houseplant and can provide a useful service in the summer garden.
    Fundamental to the cultivation of any plant is to understand how it grows in its natural environment. Poinsettias are tropical shrubs, native to Mexico. The red “flowers” you see are not flowers at all, they are called bracts and are actually leaf structures. The true flowers are those fuzzy, yellow knobs in the center. 
    Once the colorful bracts begin to fade and drop off, cut the plant way back, leaving just a leaf or two for photosynthesis. This is a good time to transplant it into fresh soil and move it to a slightly larger pot. Treat the plant as you would any other tropical houseplant…warmth, water and as much humidity and sunlight as you can possibly provide. As soon as the weather warms up in spring (when night temps stay above 55 degrees) move it outside into a sheltered area, not in direct sun. Be warned... if your poinsettia likes its summer home, it will be enormous by the end of the season. Although they have no wildlife value, I will occasionally plant a specimen or two in the ground, as they are perfect for hiding a spot where something else failed to grow. They are tender plants and will not survive, so write them off when winter comes.
    I do not try to bring poinsettias back into flower because it’s way too much work. But if you want to give it a try, here is what to do. Bring the plant back inside at the end of summer and then provide a constant environment of 16 hours of TOTAL darkness (not even a tiny crack of light) and 8 hours of direct sun…every day for the next 12 –15 weeks. There can be no margin for error in this process, as even missing a few hours of this rigid schedule will interrupt the development of the red bracts. And even if you are successful in forcing back the bracts, they likely will not be as fresh and colorful as a professionally grown plant. 
   Enjoy these beautiful plants but remember to keep them far from the reach of small children and pets. The milky sap contained in the leaves is toxic.

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