Sunday, December 13, 2009

Christmas means Poinsettia ...



...unfortunately for them. I wonder how many poinsettia are bought at Christmas, and how many are still alive a couple of months later? In fact, I wonder how many people who buy them even want them to be alive a couple of months later? Here in Italy, just before Easter, animal rights groups put up posters condemning the slaughter of lambs for Easter Sunday lunch. I reckon that at Christmas you could do the same for poinsettia ...

Poinsettia (Euphorbia pulcherrima)is native to Mexico - and if that isn't a clue that you'll kill it by bringing it home from the supermarket in temperatures not far above zero, I don't know what is. Even once you've got it home, it likes temperatures around 20-22°C (68-72°F)and lots of light. Don't overwater - it's prone to root rot - but don't let it get dry either.

By about February you'll find it starts to drop its leaves. Yours did and you thought it was dead and threw it away? Yes, I've made that mistake too. But no, it's just resting. Once a good part of the leaves have gone, cut it back to about 20-25cm, keep it fairly dry and at a slightly cooler temperature - but no lower than 15°C (59°F.

In late spring you can repot it and start watering again - but never let it get waterlogged. Use a mix of sand and compost, to guarantee drainage, and start to give it a liquid feed high in nitrogen every 20-30 days, and make sure it also has enough iron. Lack of nitrogen will result in small, slow growing, pale green leaves with yellowish brown blemishes, while lack of iron will lead to the leaves turning creamy white at the edges with brown areas between the veins. Oh - and don't forget the molybdenum - essential if the bracts are to have a strong colour.

In the heat of the summer it can stay outside - but beware. As if its fussiness about being fed wasn't enough, it's also prone to a host of pests and diseases - whitefly, blackfly, thrips, mealybugs, red spider mite, root rot, collar rot, mildew, and grey mould to name but a few. Though the fungal diseases can be avoided by ensuring it's never waterlogged, in humid conditions or given too much nitrogen - yes, I know, I know. You can't win, can you?

If you've ever seen the film When Harry Met Sally you'll know that Sally defines herself as a woman "who wants her cream on the side" (or something like that - I've only seen it in Italian so I'm translating.)In other words, somewhat fussy. And if ever there was a plant which wants its cream on the side, it must be Poinsettia.


And we've not finished yet. Let's say you manage to give it just the right amount of water and fertiliser, you protect it from the insect hordes (whoops - forgot the sap suckers who will instantly infect it with a virus)and get it through to the autumn. can you now relax and wait for those lovely coloured bracts to appear, ready for Christmas?

No way. Those bracts will only appear if for at least two months it's kept in darkness for at least 14 hours a day. That means from, say, 6pm to 8am. Though of course it wants light for the rest of the day. So forget working late in the evening or going out straight after work. Not to mention getting in before 9 in the morning. And they say kids can destroy your career and social life...

I'm starting to understand why everyone breathes a sigh of relief if their poinsettias don't make it through the holidays. It's like trying to cater for the biggest prima donna Hollywood has ever managed to produce.

So why has it become the Christmas plant par excellence? Well, clearly because of the star shape that the bracts form - but there's also a legend which is so nice that it almost makes you forgive the plant for being such a fusspot. If you search the web you'll find a wealth of different versions, but basically it goes something like this ...

There was once a little Mexican girl who was so poor that she had no gift to present to the Christ child at the Christmas Eve church service. Shamefully she picked a handful of weeds from the roadside, the only thing she could think of that she could take. Seeing her crying for the inadequacy of the gift and wanting to cheer her up, someone reassured her "Even the most humble gift, if given in love, will be acceptable in His eyes."

The girl arrived at the church, still scared to present such a poor gift to the baby Jesus despite the reassurance. But as she laid the handful of weeds by the crib they suddenly burst into a glorious display of red stars.


Since when we've all been desperately trying to keep our poinsettias alive from year to year, and generally failing pathetically. Ah well, perhaps this year...



5 comments:

mr_subjunctive said...

I got downright gleeful last January when it was time to throw all the unsold poinsettias away. But we'd also had a horrible time with fungus last Christmas at work, too. (It was the supplier's fault, but they blamed us. The whole thing was a mess.) I never liked points in the first place, but after two Christmases working with them, I despise them.

The Redneck Rosarian said...

I do love poinsettia's at Christmas. We fill our hearth with them each year. I have only had 1 poinsettia to survive to the next Christmas. They always seem to fall prey to the hot Alabama summers and the pests that a hot humid summer brings. Thanks for this post. I enjoyed reading it. A happy Christmas to you!

Jan said...

A very interesting post! I can remember that one year my Mum tried to keep her poinsettia going until the next Christmas, but I don't think she managed it... in spite of covering it with a cardboard box!

leavesnbloom said...

I like your post very much - I wrote about Poinsettias on Sunday too only more to do with purchasing and after care in the house rather than the "after New Year Care". Would you mind in the New year if I could link to your great post?

Gouri said...

I am a newcomer to your blog, and really loved it. I stay in Pune, India and have a few pots in my balcony ... amongst these, 2 poinsettias. They seem to love the weather here, and I had beautiful red stars last winter without any special care of these plants ... just regular watering and a standard organic fertilizer I use for all the pots ... they even survived 2 weeks of my absence when my neighbour flooded them with water, and incessant rains in the monsoon months.

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