Articles by Jim Gainan

As published in the Billings Gazette

Poinsettias: a harbinger of the Christmas season

According to the Society of American Florists, "Poinsettias are the largest flowering plant crop in the U.S. with sales of over 75 million pots per year." Selections range from the traditional red to shades of pink, white, burgundy and many unusual novelty colors sporting names like Strawberries & Cream (pink/white), Ice Crystal (salmon/cream) and White Glitter (red with white specks). A contemporary trend is to apply a special paint to a white poinsettia to create any color imaginable and add glitter for a little holiday sparkle. I have seen blue, lilac, orange and turquoise poinsettias.

Poinsettia breeders also experiment with different shaped bracts. Winter Rose and Carousel have “blooms” that look ruffled or wavy. One of my favorite introduction poinsettias had bracts in the shape of a holly leaf.

Poinsettias originate from Mexico and Central America. Joel Roberts Poinsett, an amateur botanist and the first ambassador to Mexico is credited with introducing the plant to the United States. An Act of Congress declared December 12 as National Poinsettia Day honoring the death of Poinsett. He died in 1851.

Poinsettias are one of the longest-lasting blooming plants available to consumers. It's important to know what to look for. Here are some tips for choosing and caring for your poinsettia.

To choose the perfect poinsettia:

• Pick a plant with small, tightly clustered buds in the center.

• Look for crisp, bright, undamaged foliage.

• Avoid plants displayed in drafty or crowded areas.

To keep the poinsettia blooming:

• When surface soil is dry to the touch, water thoroughly. Discard excess water in the saucer.

• To prolong color, keep a temperature range of 60 degrees for night and 72 degrees for day. High humidity is preferable.

• Place plant away from hot or cold drafts, and protect from cold winds.

To re-bloom for the next season:

If you have a gardener’s green thumb, you may want to try keeping your poinsettia and seeing if you can get it to re-bloom next year. Follow this calendar:

December: Poinsettia should be in full bloom. Water as needed.

February: The poinsettia’s color will start to fade. Keep it near a sunny window and fertilize the plant when new growth appears. Cut the stems back to about 8 inches.

June 1: Repot the plant, if needed. Continue to fertilize according to directions and water when the soil is dry to the touch. You may move the plant outside if temperatures do not fall below 50 degrees. Place it in light shade.

Late August: Bring the pot back inside. Cut the stems back, leaving 3 to 4 leaves per shoot. Place it in a sunny window. Water and fertilize as needed.

September 20 – December 1: This is the important part. Keep the plant in light only from 8am to 5pm. Put it in dark (no lights) from 5pm to 8am.

The key to success is the strict light/dark schedule.

Poinsettia Toxicity Myth

The poinsettia is the most widely-tested consumer plant on the market today, proving the myth about the popular holiday plant to be false.

Scientific research from Ohio State University has proved the poinsettia to be non-toxic to both humans and pets. All parts of the plant were tested, including the leaves and sap.

According to POISINDEX, the national information center for poison control centers, a child would have to ingest 500-600 leaves in order to exceed the experimental doses that found no toxicity.

A study by Children's Hospital in Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University found that out of 22,793 reported poinsettia exposures there was essentially no toxicity significance of any kind. The study used national data collected by the American Association of Poison Control Centers.

The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals reports that keeping this plant out of the reach of pets to avoid stomach upset is a good idea; however pet owners need not fear the poinsettia and banish it from their homes for fear of a fatal exposure.

As with any non-food product, however, the poinsettia is not meant to be eaten and can cause varying degrees of discomfort. Therefore, the plant should be kept out of the reach of young children and curious pets.

Individuals may be sensitive to the plant. If the plant is eaten, call your local hospital or the Poison Control Center at 1-800-525-5042.

Jim Gainan is President of Gainan's Flowers and Garden Center in Billings, MT.