Horticulture news: Poinsettias add color as decorations and make great gifts

By Lora Bailey, Horticulture Extension Agent Published:

Thanksgiving is complete, heralding the beginning of the holidays. One way to celebrate and also beat the winter blues is to add some fresh plants. Have you considered poinsettias? They make colorful decorations, cheerful gifts and have historical significance in holiday tradition.

The poinsettia was named for Joel Robert Poinsett, an amateur botanist and the first United States ambassador to Mexico. Fascinated with these native plants he sent them home to Greenville, S. C., in 1825. Although Poinsett later was war secretary under President Martin Van Buren, he is better known for this plant.

Poinsett was not the first to discover this plant, however. The Aztecs actually cultivated poinsettias for medicinal purposes and also as a dye. Later, missionaries to Mexico used the brightly colored plants in nativity processions and folklore, possibly beginning the holiday connection that continues today.

Poinsettias are the most popular potted plant grown in the United States, with annual sales exceeding 70 million plants. In Kentucky, some tobacco greenhouse operators have learned how to grow poinsettias. More than 60 varieties and 500,000 plants are grown and sold in Kentucky each year.

The three- to six-bloom red poinsettia is the most frequently used, but other sizes, shapes and colors are available, including variegated varieties. Colors range from creamy white to yellow through shades of pink to the traditional red. The colorful plant parts often referred to as “flowers” actually are modified leaves called “bracts.”

The yellow centers are the true flowers. Poinsettia bracts are very long lasting, providing a nice decorative plant for the holiday season. Consumers can purchase various forms of poinsettias as well including miniatures, poinsettia trees and even hanging baskets.

Contrary to popular belief, the poinsettia is not poisonous to people or pets, but is not edible. Ingesting a plant part may cause some discomfort. Young children, who are apt to put just about anything in their mouths, and curious cats might choke on fibrous poinsettia foliage. Therefore it is a good practice to put poinsettias and all other non-edible plants out of the reach of children and pets.

Also, some people have skin sensitivity to the white milky sap secreted when a part of the plant is broken or injured.

Poinsettias will remain beautiful far beyond the holiday season when cared for properly. Keep these tips in mind:

>Purchase plants with small, tightly clustered yellow buds in the center and crisp, bright, undamaged foliage.

>Place the poinsettia in a room with bright, natural light. Ideally, plant foliage should be exposed to direct sunlight one or more hours daily.

>Avoid drafty locations or areas close heat sources. Do not put the plant on top of a television set or near a radiator.

>Water the plant when the soil becomes dry to the touch; drooping leaves may indicate it needs watering. Be sure to discard excess water in the drip saucer.

>If you want to keep a poinsettia after the holiday season, fertilize it with ordinary houseplant fertilizer a few weeks after buying it.

For more information on indoor gardening, contact the Franklin County Cooperative Extension Service at 502-695-9035.

Source: Rick Durham, UK horticulture specialist

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