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NUTS & BOLTS / PATRICK MOTT

Poinsettias Brighten Seasons All Year

December 22, 1990|PATRICK MOTT

If you think all that stuff about the Bermuda Triangle is just a clever marketing ploy to get you to buy yet another set of Time-Life books that you'll never read, you might want to take a minute to consider the poinsettia.

Right now, they're everywhere. They're taking up thousands of little pots in dozens of shopping malls, ringing the bases of hundreds of big corporate Christmas trees, lining the steps of thousands of church altars. This week, the world is ablaze with poinsettias.

So how come you never see a poinsettia in mid-January? Where do they go? Are they stolen by trolls? Are they eaten by reindeer? Or are they manufactured by some chemistry whiz who has managed to produce a plant that will dutifully vaporize after one month?

The more likely explanation is that people manage to kill them off by the millions every year, one at a time, through the sure-fire expedient of neglect bolstered by the belief that the poinsettia is some sort of hothouse plant more delicate than a $10,000 tropical orchid that will crumble into crinkly, parched dust anyway. So they wait until the plant starts to look like the "after" picture on a box of weed killer and they chuck it down the trash chute.

To these folks, the idea of a poinsettia living through the Fourth of July might seem about as plausible as Spike Lee wearing Florsheim wingtips. But the people at the Paul Ecke Poinsettia Ranch in Encinitas say you can maintain a poinsettia through the dog days, right on past Halloween and Thanksgiving and on into next Christmas.

And they should know. They're the largest grower of poinsettias in the country. The Ecke Ranch grows more than 80 different sizes, shapes and colors of the plant in 35 acres of greenhouses. They estimate that more than 90% of all flowering poinsettia plants produced in the world get their start at the Encinitas ranch.

So when they tell me that with a little care and vigilance I can have the same poinsettia on my coffee table next year, in full flower, I believe them. There are several steps involved, but they're fairly easy to remember because, according to the Ecke people, most correspond to holidays. It works like this:

The modern poinsettia, according to the instructions, will retain its bright leaves (called bracts) for many weeks, longer, undoubtedly, than many people expect. All that's needed during its flowering time is regular watering (every three to four days) and the regular and moderate use of a fertilizer in dry, liquid, pill or stick form at the rate recommended on the package. If you care for the flowering plant properly, you'll start to notice side shoots beginning to develop in January. Cut the fading bracts back on St. Patrick's Day (March 17) and continue the schedule of watering and fertilizing. By Memorial Day (May 30), the Ecke Ranch folks say your plant may have developed into a mature height of 2 to 3 feet with several branches and large leaves.

This is the time to repot the plant into a larger container and move it outdoors for the summer. Cut back all the shoots to 6 inches on the Fourth of July to promote the development of more side branches, all the time continuing to water and fertilize the plant.

Labor Day begins the homestretch. Move your poinsettia inside at that time and give it at least 6 hours of direct light in a sunny window without curtains.

About a month later, on Columbus Day, darkness becomes important. For the bracts and the tiny yellow flowers to develop, the plant needs at least 6 hours of bright light each day, followed by at least 12 hours in absolute darkness at a maximum night temperature of 65 degrees. So, starting Oct. 12, plan on moving the plant around a lot. It takes eight to 10 weeks for the bracts to develop their full holiday lushness.

(Important note if you have children or pets: poinsettias are toxic if they're ingested. If eaten in large amounts, they can cause severe stomach pains.)

You can also cut back the plant any time during its growing season to control its size. You should make the last pruning in mid-August.

You can grow plants from the cuttings by rooting them in a pot filled with potting soil after dusting the base of the cutting with a rooting powder. Insert the cuttings into the soil, water them well and place the pot and the cuttings into a large polyethylene bag.

Seal the bag and put it in a brightly lit area with a surrounding temperature of 65 to 70 degrees. Roots will begin to form in 14 to 18 days. Punch holes in the bag when the cuttings begin to grow. When the plant begins to mature, the bag can be removed.

And, if you like, you can put them into the ground as a bedding plant, along with the other annuals in your garden. The care for a bedding poinsettia is the same as for a potted one.

Not everyone, of course, is going to follow this advice, and the Ecke Ranch probably counts on that. If everyone painstakingly kept alive every poinsettia they had ever been given, they would start sprouting out of the roof tiles.

But give it a try, this year anyway. If only for the sheer fun of getting to tell people who drop over for a little lemonade during Indian summer next October that the plant you have tucked away in your light-tight darkroom--the one that looks as if it's been cultivated in a greenhouse for the past several months--is a poinsettia.

Tell them you learned the technique from the "Bizarre Secrets of the Ancients" gardening book.

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