Preserving Poinsettias Beyond The Holidays
As we deck the halls and await the holiday to officially arrive, we find comfort in the pleasures of being prepared and ready. One major staple for the holiday comes by way of a very common plant that only receives the noted attention it deserves around this time of year: the poinsettia. At the end of the season it’s usually time to dance its funeral jig, but I suggest that it’s time to play this plant a different tune.
Get to know your poinsettia
Some background: The poinsettia, native to Mexico, was introduced into the U.S. by Joel Poinsett in 1825. Today, the poinsettia, commercially grown in all fifty states and with over 100 varieties, is the most popular Christmas plant: each year over 220 million are sold during the six-week period around the holidays. That's a lot of plant lives to save!
Give these holiday flowers a long healthy life
Poinsettias have a reputation of being disposable, and it's not just our homes that use them. For many offices, restaurants and shops, poinsettias are often brought in to brighten up spaces and create a festive holiday decor. But what happens after that? Most die and get tossed into the trash, but some escape this fate — thanks to someone's good intentions — only to linger in a zombie-like state, never gracing us with another flower. Sound familiar?
I always encourage people to take them home — where their chances to bloom are actually much greater — and then these folks can get a prize for returning the plant next year. I love the incentive idea, as Mother Nature would be proud.
Poinsettia care schedule
Despite this toss them phenomenon, one of the most common questions I'm asked after the holidays is “How the heck do I get my poinsettia to re-bloom next year?” The task is not a straightforward one, but if you love gardening and nurturing a houseplant, you will find the Poinsettia to be worth the effort — like learning new dance steps. To make the process easier, I've created a monthly schedule to help you know what to do and when, hopefully relieving any frustration so you can simply enjoy the process. (And then gloat when others ask where you got your plant next year!)
January – February - March
Simply continue to water the poinsettia as you would any plant, never allowing the soil to completely dry. If you need something to drink so does your poinsettia.
Now it needs to hibernate a little. So to help it go dormant, beginning April 1, gradually decrease water, allowing the soil to get dry between watering. Be careful the stem does not begin to wither. Should this happen your plant is rejecting your efforts, thus declining fast and no doubt soon will make it into your trash. After a couple of weeks, the plant will have got use to this drying process, so you can move it to a nice coldish place that stays around 60 degrees F (like a cellar or a furnace room; in an apartment, control the temperature as much as you can — your best bet may be against an outside wall, and definitely out of direct sunlight.) Water very little, never soaking or allowing it to sit in water.
A month after you moved it into the cooler spot — mid-May — cut all stems back to finger length (about 4 inches.) To be ready for the plant's eventual growth spurt, take this time to repot the poinsettia in a somewhat bigger container. If it is still in the plastic pot, I switch it into something more decorative, too. Take your time and water well to wake it up. Now you can bring back to the sunniest spot you have in your home, this will keep it at a temperature up to 75 degrees F throughout the summer and into September, even when you have your AC on. Continue watering on a regular schedule. You should soon begin to notice some regeneration — stalks, sprouts or leaves — a sign that you are half way there. This is the best time to begin fertilizing, too. Fertilize a couple times a month with a good complete fertilizer — simply use a regular houseplant fertilizer mixed at half strength.
You can now move your poinsettia outside for a summer blast of sunshine and temperatures. Keep it in a partially shaded location and never in direct sunlight. Water regularly and give a little extra fertilizer once near the end of this month.
Right after July 4, take a moment and cut back each stem the length of your thumb tip. It's tempting to leave the growth, but if left uncut now, the poinsettia will grow rather leggy and lanky. Not their best look.
August - September
By mid-August, each branch will have new growth. Once again, pinch or cut them back to a small handful of leaves on each shoot. Now's the time to bring the plant back inside (so the temperature remains regular) and place in your sunny window. Water regularly, and add the fertilizer mix once per month.
To get poinsettias to re-bloom, at this point they must be limited to 12 hours or less of sunlight per day. This might sound tricky, but all you have to remember is that starting October 1 until almost the end of November, keep your plant in complete darkness from 5 pm to 8 am. (Like a toddler with a very early bedtime!) No exposure to light as this will delay blooming. Even quick exposure to light will affect the blooming, so the easiest thing to do is to put it in a closet you know you won't be using until the next morning. During the day, place the plant back in its sunny window and continue to water and fertilize.
The last week in November you can keep the poinsettia in the window full time. Your reward for this early bedtime schedule? You will have several fabulous flower buds now.
No more fertilizing after mid-month. Continue to water it the way you did when it was new — and enjoy as it continues to bloom throughout the season!
You can be proud that you gave your poinsettia an encore performance — and believe me when I tell you that you will enjoy your holiday plants even more knowing that you gave them such care. So, do a little dance, but remember, you're a pro now, so it's up to you to share the knowledge. Knowledge is power, so share the power — and even share this article.
Poinsettia growing not for you?
Perhaps you've read this far and are thinking "um, not so sure" — perhaps these steps are not conducive to your lifestyle, home or family. So, consider making this a project for a grandparent, a child's school project or donate the plant and a copy of the steps to a nursing home. Many adult care centers thrive on giving their residents responsibilities. (Of course, always check first before you donate an unwanted poinsettia.) My grandmother thrived on nursing plants back to health and somehow always had a green magic thumb. I'm sure there are other wonderful people that would also love the responsibility.
And should you still decide you will resort to discarding them, more good news: note that there is no actual evidence that poinsettias are toxic or unsafe to have in the house, so consider putting them in a compost pile and letting them break down gracefully and usefully — with dignity. It may not be a waltz, but it's a fanfare of a sort. And there you have it.
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