In the Garden:
Pacific Northwest
December, 2008
Regional Report

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Red poinsettias may be traditional, but I love the new speckled varieties

Pamper Your New Poinsettias

You know it's getting close to the holidays when poinsettias start showing up in garden shops and grocery stores. Buying the best plant can be a daunting task, considering there are likely 20 varieties in a dozen sizes and shapes from which to choose. Red is traditional, but available colors range from pink, salmon, white, pink with white splashes, and pink with red stripes. If none of these colors suits your decor, you can adjust the colors by spraying the plants with floral dye. Floral dye comes in an aerosol spray can and is used by florists to change or intensify the colors of cut flowers. It is available in craft stores and floral supply shops.

Custom Colors
If you have a pink poinsettia and want lavender, you can spray it with Hydrangea Blue or Lilac floral dye. Spraying it with Daffodil Yellow produces a peach color. A red poinsettia sprayed with Delphinium Blue becomes burgundy; sprayed with Purple Pansy, it becomes violet. A marbled pink and white poinsettia can become lavender and light blue when sprayed with Hydrangea Blue floral dye, periwinkle and dark blue when sprayed with Delphinium Blue, peach and golden yellow when sprayed with Daffodil, or two values of lavender when sprayed with Lilac floral dye. Let your imagination run wild and you can have some eye-catching poinsettias to wow your guests.

How to Choose the Best
To get the best poinsettias, select plants with thoroughly colored and expanded bracts. The red, white, pink, and speckled "flowers" on poinsettias are actually modified leaves, called bracts. The real flowers are the tiny yellow things in the middle of the bracts.

Begin your search by looking for poinsettias with these characteristics:
1. Bracts with no blemishes.
2. Dense foliage all the way down the stem.
3. Plants about two and one-half times the height of the pot.
4. Strong, stiff stems.
5. Small, yellow flowers just barely opened.
6. Green, healthy lower leaves.

Get to the Bottom of Things
Once you've chosen the very best-looking plants, carefully slip off the pot and look for white and light tan colored roots that have grown all the way to the sides of the pot. Brown roots, or few roots, can be a bad sign. The act of publicly un-potting a plant makes me feel a little bit daring, but it's worth the effort. A poinsettia without a good root system won't last very long.

Location, Location
I've found that poinsettias will last about three weeks indoors, even in the darkest corners where no other plant life will survive. This makes them perfect for decorating a room to my own taste rather than having to place them under optimal growing conditions. If you place yours in a dark area, be sure to water only when the soil is very dry and don't fertilize at all.

Aftercare
After the holiday cleanup, poinsettias should be returned to fairly bright light to remain healthy. South, east or west windows are best. The bracts may open completely and then fall off, but this is normal. If they last until March, your poinsettia is very happy where you put it. Water regularly -- as often as necessary to keep the soil from drying out.

Cut the plant back in early April, leaving four to six nodes or segments on each stem. Begin fertilizing with a diluted liquid houseplant fertilizer when new growth begins. As the weather warms in late spring, take your poinsettia outdoors to spend the summer in a sunny spot. Trim new growth back in July and again in mid-August to encourage a bushy appearance.

Conditioning for Rebloom
When weather cools in the fall, bring your poinsettia back indoors and place it in a sunny windowsill. It takes about 10 weeks of special treatment to coax poinsettias into bloom. Beginning in late September, provide 14 hours of total darkness and 10 hours of bright light every 24 hours. I put mine in a closet every evening at 6 and take it out every morning at 8, placing it in a west-facing window. This process is repeated until the first week of December. If all goes well, it should be radiant with color by Christmas!


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