AS WE MOVE into the darkest period of the year, I find self thinking of the past — my deceased parents and the greenhouse I was born in (actually propagated in a 4-inch pot on bench number 3).
As it is now December, the last month of the year and the calendar closes down, how about an article on a botanical Christmas icon?
One of the very first jobs I had (aged 4, for a nickel an hour), was to tend the 30,000 poinsettias in the greenhouse my father managed.
Each year, the owner would give me some cuttings to stick in pots.
I would plant the rooted cuttings and care for them all season, ensuring the money they would fetch later in the retail store.
He wanted me to understand the process and care a crop requires. I learned several things from this experience.
First was that Otto Schroeder, the greenhouse owner, was a wise, generous man. I came to learn he always bought these plants at top dollar as gifts for his good clients.
I also learned poinsettias, although the quintessential holiday plant, forgive nothing.
I will address the perils of the poinsettias as it travels from the greenhouse to the holiday home.
Over 2,000 species
Poinsettias are actually in the genus Euphorbia (milkweed, spurge). This is an incredibly varied genus that consists of more than 2,000 species of annuals, bi-annuals and perennials.
Euphorbias can be evergreen, semi-evergreen, deciduous, herbaceous, trees, scrubs, bushes and even numerous types of succulents (e.g. crown of thorns, medusa’s head).
Their range consists of tropical, subtropical and temperate regions.
They are classified as a group because of their flower structure (bracts reduced male and female parts) and they all bleed a milky sap.
The “Christmas” Euphorbia (poinsettia) is Euphorbia pulcherrima or “Mexican flame leaf,” and is indigenous to southern Mexico and Central America.
Poinsettias are photoperiodic, which means they bloom depending on the amount of light and dark during the day. Poinsettias are long-night, short-day photoperiodic plants, and the day length in the northern hemisphere colors their leaves naturally during holiday season.
Joel Robert Poinsett
Joel Robert Poinsett (1779- 1851) was an American politician and diplomat who was sent as a special commissioner to South and Central America to investigate the conditions of countries struggling for democracy in that region. Finding himself in Mexico during late fall, he was impressed with this very showy bush turning fiery red.
He introduced this flower holiday plant to America, which quickly propelled it into a standard Christmas plant.
Poinsettias’ next run of fate came in 1905 when an army colonel’s 5-year-old daughter ate some leaves and became severely ill. This branded poinsettias as poisonous, a stigma that undeservedly hangs on today.
I will never forget my father winning a Toastmasters trophy for the day’s best talk. He had eaten a poinsettia, leaf by leaf, as he explained that they are not poisonous and how myths become dogma. Some people (and animals) are allergic to the substance the plants bleed, as in the case of that 5-year old girl.
Poinsettias popularity persisted and soon Paul Ecke established the poinsettia ranch in Encinitas, Calif.
By the ’50s and ’60s the “little red flame bush” was available in pinks, white, marble and a myriad of red shades all with greatly improved bract size.
The varieties have exploded in the past, with a multitude of breeders developing strange new colors and types. Noted new introductions are silver star, with white and pinkish variegated leaves; Monet, a beautiful select pink leaf; and peppermint consisting of a red leaf with fine white markings. There are also yellows, corals and deep dark pinks along with winter rose which is a double-flowered curled leaf poinsettia.
Poinsettias do not like too dry, too wet, too cold, too drafty, too dark, too touched, too humid or not humid enough.
They do not like great changes and in all cases they have the same response: curled leaves that drop-off and colored top leaves with curl or brown at the edge.
What can you do to avoid such problems?
Select plants that look healthy, robust and that have dark sturdy leaves.
Get plants that are not too dry or soaking wet.
Next, avoid drafts and cool temperatures. Pre-warm your vehicle for several minutes if transporting from the greenhouse to a party or the recipients home.
Place the poinsettias in a large bag (being careful not to bruise the leaves) if weather is in the 30s and run to and from doorways. Never put poinsettias outside for long.
In the house, do not put them right up next to a window (cold or drafty) or by a heating duct (hot and dry).
Put the plant in a bright, sunny location. Then at night you can put the plant back the holiday spot (even if the light would be inadequate there for the plant to flourish).
Watering becomes the next culprit and all too many times is the biggest reason for catastrophic failure. The foil covering must have drainage holes.
Nothing except cold air will trash your poinsettias faster than over-watering.
Not bone dry
Poinsettias like to be watered then left to drain and dry — not bone dry though as under watering will cause the leaves to drop rapidly.
As a rule, the bigger the pot, the better watering will go because smaller pots dry out faster and react to change faster.
A couple of waterings per week is good, but that is totally dependent on your house or business conditions.
Humidity is the next death knell.
A great trick is to put pea gravel in the saucer with three small blocks of wood to keep the pot elevated above the gravel line (there must be no contact). Then every day add a little water to the gravel.
The porosity will make for easy evaporation, which will rise in a column of humidity throughout the plant.
Heat is also important.
Poinsettias are tropical and do not tolerate temperatures at night at less than 65 degrees and like daytime highs in the 70s.
The night temperature is the key.
So as you move about this holiday season, reward the host of the parties or decorate your home with this wonderful and colorful “Mexican flaming leaf.”
And to all, happy holidays to you, your family and loved ones. Stay well, all!
Andrew May is a freelance writer and ornamental horticulturist who dreams of having Clallam and Jefferson counties nationally recognized as “Flower Peninsula USA.” Send him questions c/o Peninsula Daily News, P.O. Box 1330, Port Angeles, WA 98362, or email firstname.lastname@example.org (subject line: Andrew May).