Poinsettias provide traditional beauty

Long ago they were called Flores de Noche Buena (Flowers of the Holy Night), but today we know poinsettias as the most popular Christmas plants. Christmas is loaded with legends and stories like the Little Drummer Boy and the origin of the poinsettia.

The legend has it that a little girl in Mexico, named Pepita, and her cousin, Pedro, were on their way to church in honor of the Christ Child. Pepita was poor and had no money for gifts. On the way to church she picked a bouquet of wild flowers and as she laid them lovingly on the altar, they turned into beautiful poinsettias, hence the name Flores de Noche Buena.

This year Mississippi growers will produce between 250,000 and 300,000 poinsettias, so you can enjoy a beautiful, healthy poinsettia this holiday season. The poinsettias have been popular since the first U.S. Ambassador to Mexico, Joel Poinset, brought them back home.

Most shoppers know poinsettias by color, not variety. The colorful parts of a poinsettia are actually modified leaves known as bracts. The true flowers are the small yellow buttons in the centers of the bracts. One popular variety is the Sonora Jingle Bells that have dark red bracts with white flecks, giving it a peppermint look.

Norman’s pick

My personal favorite is Pepride with dark green leaves and deep red bracts that are shaped like oak leaves. Freedom is a dark red variety with dark green leaves. It is awfully hard to find a prettier poinsettia than this one.

Silver Star is another poinsettia that has garnered my attention. This variety has dark red bracts but also variegated foliage of silver and green.

Monet is my favorite pink variety. Unless you prefer red, this may be the most beautiful poinsettia ever developed. The bracts are pink with drifts of a darker pink or burgundy, giving it a painted look. Marble Star is another great pink variety with a creamy white variegation that gives it a marble look.

One myth that has hung around for years is that poinsettias are poisonous. Research at Ohio State University has proven conclusively that the poinsettia plant and its juices are not poisonous.

Poinsettias can hold their color way past Christmas if you shop wisely. Look for plants with fully mature, thoroughly colored and expanded bracts, and small green flower buds.

Select plants with dark green foliage down to the soil line. This indicates a healthy root system. Reject plants with damaged or discolored foliage and select symmetrical plants in proportion to their containers. As a rule of thumb, poinsettias should be 2 12 times bigger than their pots. In other words, a 15- to 18-inch-tall plant looks best in a 6-inch container.

Look for strong, stiff stems, good leaf and bract retention, and no signs of wilting, breaking or drooping. Carefully inspect packaged poinsettias before purchasing them. Poinsettias left in sleeves for an extended period of time may become unhealthy.

Transport poinsettias carefully. Strong winds or short-term exposure to temperatures below 40 degrees can permanently damage the plants.

During the holidays, use the poinsettia for decorative effects. When possible, place the plant in the sunniest exposure in your home. A window that faces south, east or west is better than one facing north.

Your poinsettia was greenhouse grown at day temperatures of 70 to 72 degrees and night temperatures of about 60 degrees. Your plant will last longer if you provide similar temperatures.

Two problems most often encountered with poinsettias center around watering. With the busy holiday season, forgetting to water can be disastrous for a poinsettia.

Examine the soil daily. When the surface is dry to the touch, water until it runs freely out the drainage hole in the container. The second major problem results from decorative wraps that can trap water and suffocate the roots.

Norman Winter is a horticulturist with Mississippi State University’s Extension Service. His office is located at the Central Mississippi Research and Extension Center at 1320 Seven Springs Road, Raymond, MS 39154.

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