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Plant of the Week

December 12, 1987|LINDA FRENCH

Euphorbia pulcherrima

Poinsettia

Indoor plant or outdoor shrub

The poinsettia, with its green foliage, red bracts and tiny yellow flowers, has been associated with the birth of Christ since the 17th Century, when Spanish missionaries south of Mexico City started using it in their Nativity celebrations. Soon they became known as Flores de Noche Buena (Flowers of the Holy Night). In 1825, Joel Poinsett, the first U.S. ambassador to Mexico, brought a few back to his South Carolina plantation to start as greenhouse Christmas plants, hence the common name.

Florist shops and garden centers are now stocked to overflowing with all sizes of poinsettias for the Christmas season.

Several varieties of red poinsettias are available; the toughest, Everlasting Star, with ruby-red bracts and dark-green foliage, will hold on to all of its leaves longer than other varieties. It was developed--as were the pink and white varieties--by Paul Ecke Poinsettia Ranch in Encinitas, producer and distributor of poinsettias since the 1920s.

In searching for a poinsettia to bring home for the holidays, look for healthy green foliage that grows all the way down to the soil line; this indicates that the roots are healthy. A plant in its prime has, in the center of the colored bracts, small green buttons that will become the actual flowers of the poinsettia.

To ensure that the poinsettia survives the holidays, place the plant in a room that gets good, bright light at least six hours a day and in which temperatures vary only between 60 and 72 degrees (poinsettias fail in rooms where there are drafts or heating vents and on top of televisions). Water the plant thoroughly once it is situated, and after a few days give it a high-nitrogen fertilizer. Water again only when the soil is dry to the touch; the pots should never sit in water.

When the holidays have passed, poinsettias do not necessarily have to be destined for the alleyway along with the Christmas tree. A plant that is losing is leaves is just going into a dormant period.

Stop watering the plant, and in March cut back the stems to six inches. When new shoots appear, about two weeks later, plant the poinsettia in the garden.

To prevent them from becoming too tall and leggy (they can get to be 10 feet), cut back again in July to six inches from the old stems.

Poinsettias need the long, dark nights of fall to turn rich colors--street lights and other artificial light will upset the process.

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