Published on 11/22/04

Poinsettias bring holiday decorations to life

By Bodie V. Pennisi
University of Georgia

Poinsettias embody the holiday spirit and help create the most festive displays. The challenge is deciding how many poinsettias to buy -- what color, leaf shape, plant size and form. There are so many.

These holiday classics offer traditional red, strong white, creamy white, light pink, solid pink, bright orange-red, deep purple-red and various marbled or speckled flowers.

They come in sizes from 4-inch pots for table displays to 18-inch hanging baskets, living wreaths, topiaries and 3-gallon floor planters.

Poinsettias are versatile. Besides using them simply as potted plants, you can use stems as cut flowers in arrangements. Just be sure to keep cut stems in water. Some cultivars can last up to two weeks as cut flowers.

Despite persistent rumors to the contrary, poinsettias are nonpoisonous and safe around children and pets.

Buying the best plants is easy if you follow these tips:

Think Georgia-grown. This year's Georgia crop promises to be phenomenal. Locally grown plants may cost more, but they keep better. They're usually sold to florist shops and garden centers.

Look for fully colored and expanded bracts (the colored portions of the plant -- the actual flowers are the yellow centers). Avoid plants with too much green around the bract edges. This is a sign that the plant was shipped before it was mature enough.

Choose plants with dense, rich green leaves all along the stem. Poinsettias should be well-branched and proportioned with the container, about two and a half times the height of the pot.

Check the leaves for possible "hitchhikers." One common pest on poinsettias is the silverleaf whitefly. These tiny flies live on the underside of the leaves, sucking the juices. This is the giveaway: when the insects excrete the plant's juices, they drop a "honeydew" on the leaves below. Don't buy plants with sticky leaves with dots on the undersides.

Examine the roots. White and light tan roots that have grown to the sides of the pot are signs of a healthy plant. Brown roots, or few roots, may be a sign of disease.

Don't buy plants with weak stems, few bracts or any signs of wilting, breaking or drooping. Poinsettias are often crowded in stores, sometimes in paper, plastic or mesh sleeves. But they need their space. The longer they remain sleeved, the faster their quality deteriorates.

When you buy your poinsettias and take them home, protect them from chilling winds and temperatures below 50 degrees. You may need to place it into a sleeve or a large shopping bag.

Once they're home, place poinsettias wherever your decoration plan calls for them. They'll last about three weeks in fairly dark places. Don't put them near cold drafts or excessive heat or near appliances, fireplaces or ventilating ducts.

Water poinsettias only when the soil feels dry to the touch. Don't let them wilt, though, or the leaves could drop. Overwatering is a common cause for poinsettias dying. Always remove a plant from any decorative container before watering, and let the water drain completely.

Don't fertilize them during the blooming season. This will cause them to lose some of their quality.

After the holidays are over, move poinsettias to a bright spot in either south, east or west windows. Eventually, the bracts will start to fall off. By early April, cut the plant back, leaving four to six nodes or segments in the stem. At this point, you can grow poinsettias outdoors in full sun. Fertilize them weekly with a balanced, all-purpose fertilizer at the same rate you give to houseplants.

Trim poinsettias in June, and plant them in 1-gallon pots or large, indoor planters. Trim back new growth again around July 1 and again by mid-August. Continue to fertilize them throughout spring and summer, applying nutrition once every two to three weeks as fall nears. Grown with adequate water and nutrition, poinsettias can grow as high as 4 feet.

(Bodie Pennisi is a horticulturist specializing in greenhouse flowers with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.)

Bodie Pennisi is a Cooperative Extension horticulturist with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.