Good to Grow: Experiment in preserving poinsettias

poinsettia

Poinsettias’ brightly colored leaves, called bracts, are often mistaken for petals.

What the heck do you do with a poinsettia after Christmas? Well, you can guess what I do: If I don’t keep chrysanthemums after the fall season, I definitely don’t keep poinsettias after the holidays.

But let me tell you a story.

Years ago, my good friend DB received a beautiful poinsettia as a gift from her husband. It was the kind of plant that made any table, fireplace or nook look instantly magazine-worthy. Big leaves of red and white filled the stately plant stems. It screamed Christmas.

After enjoying it throughout the holiday season, DB loved it so that she wanted it to bloom again next year. Being a much better and more patient gardener than I am, she researched how to make that happen.

Poinsettias like a tropical climate, so even cool air from the store to the car and then to home can be harmful. Make sure the leaves are covered when taking the plant outside. Once in the house, avoid putting them near a drafty or cool window. This will cause them to drop their leaves. Poinsettias like sunlight, so try for a warm sunny spot.

Water them often. This will help prolong their color and let you enjoy them through the winter.

Just like my friend, you can set them outside in late spring once the days and nights are warm. If you trim the stems after the bracts (colored leaves that are often mistaken for petals) fall off and give them plenty of sun and water, the plants should live and be green throughout the summer. A hard prune around June is a good idea to promote healthy growth and a good shape to the plant.

This is where re-blooming gets tricky and DB’s story continues. In September, the poinsettia needs to be moved inside and given special attention. DB’s office had an empty interior room that she used to guarantee the 15 hours per day of total darkness needed to encourage buds and bracts to change color. Even a bit of light seeping under the door can disrupt the process. She moved her prized poinsettia into the room. She hung signs on the door stating “Do Not Open Door! Experiment in Progress.”

I can only image what her officemates were thinking, but everyone was a good sport and did not dare breach her warning.

DB added grow lights to provide the poinsettia with the needed light, about 8 hours a day. Remember this was an interior office and, although perfect for the darkness, artificial light was added to provide the indirect light. This went on for eight weeks! She she would check on her treasured plant every morning, and all was good. It was growing.

As one can imagine, after weeks of her mystery “experiment,” the office was full of jokes about her laboratory and what might be growing inside: “A poinsettia ... sure thing DB.”

Finally, it was early December and time for the once-grand plant to make its second year debut. That morning DB walked the long corridor in excitement, knowing that today she would bring her plant out into the office.

Now don’t forget that she had been watering it regularly and checking in often but, as with most offices the end of the year was busy and she had not been visiting her “lab” every day. So you can imagine her joy when that December morning, she opened the door to see a robust poinsettia plant full of beautiful red color.

It was a Christmas miracle. Or was it?

Once her excitement settled, DB realized something wasn’t quite right. Yes, she had kept her poinsettia alive but seeing that it was by no means the grand plant it had once been, she began to giggle. Being ever so clever, she went back to her desk and waited. It didn’t take long for a friendly co-worker to stop by to ask about her plant. That’s when she knew. There had a been switch. The reblooming red poinsettia was an imposter!

Everyone had a good laugh, DB enjoyed her beautiful new poinsettia and gave the original a holiday send-off. The lesson for me, and hopefully for DB is that poinsettias are beautiful and something to be enjoyed for the season, but it’s the memories — not the plant — that will last a lifetime.

Jane Powell is a long-time West Virginia Extension Service Master Gardener through the Kanawha County chapter and has a garden with sunny spots and shady beds where she grows perennials, vegetables and herbs. She is also the author of the “Gardening in Pearls,” a blog that combines her love of gardens, fashion and design. By day, Jane is the communications director for a community foundation and a volunteer with several nonprofits in the community. Find her blog at gardeninginpearls.com. Reach Jane at janeellenpowell@aol.com.