Originally created 11/11/05

Study poinsettia's flowers, bracts to find healthy plant



You know it's the holiday season when poinsettias show up at florist shops, garden centers and chain stores.

If you're planning to buy one this year, you need to know where to get it and what to look for.

Ask for locally grown, or at least Georgia or South Carolina, poinsettias.

It is not easy to produce a perfect poinsettia, but Georgia and South Carolina growers do a great job. They grow more than 20 varieties in a dozen sizes and shapes, including some eye-catching 18-inch hanging baskets and 3-gallon floor planters that fit almost any decorative scheme.

Georgia- and South Carolina-grown poinsettias might cost a little more, but they're bigger and will last longer.

To get the best poinsettias, choose plants with thoroughly colored and expanded bracts. The red, white, pink, and speckled "flowers" on poinsettias actually are bracts, or modified leaves. The real flowers are the tiny yellow things in the middle of the bracts. As insignificant as those flowers are, they hold the key to selecting a healthy poinsettia: You want to pick a plant where the tiny yellow blooms haven't yet opened. This means the plant is early in its holiday-flowering cycle. Large amounts of pollen and nectar in the flowers means it's past its prime.

Pick a plant that has a nice number of bracts. A good selection would be six to eight. Check the plant's foliage, too. Search for a plant with dark-green foliage and a stiff stem. A good-size, full plant with five or more branches would be an excellent selection.

Examine the plant for insects. White flies are a major poinsettia pest. They inhabit the underside of the leaves and suck the juices and sap from the plant. Evidence of whiteflies usually is obvious. When you shake the plant, it almost looks like smoke going up when the whiteflies fly out. When they excrete the plant's juices, they drop sticky honeydew onto the leaves below. If you see sticky leaves and/or dots on the underside of the leaves, don't buy it. Those scale-looking dots are the whitely nymphs.

It is not a bad idea to take the plant out of the pot and look at the roots. White and tan roots that have grown to the sides of the pot are signs of a healthy plant. Brown roots, or few roots, can be a bad sign, and a poinsettia without good roots won't last long in your home.

You can put your poinsettia just about anywhere during the holidays to brighten things up, but they will perform better and last longer in a well-lighted area, usually the higher the light intensity the better. Sunny windows are good locations. Optimal day temperatures range from 70-75 degrees, with optimal night temperatures of 55-65 degrees. If you are having guests over for a visit or party and need to put them in a darker location, wait to do that until the day of your get-together. Then move them back to a brighter location the next day.

Droopy foliage sometimes occurs when plants have been in a dark, cool place for more than 24 hours. Plants usually will revive when placed in light and warmer temperatures.

Proper watering is extremely important. Plants should be watered when the soil is dry. The watering frequency will vary with the size of the plant, container and environmental conditions. Those of you who are cold-natured and keep your house warmer might need to water twice a week, while those who keep their house cooler might need to water only once a week. Apply enough water to thoroughly wet the entire soil volume in the pot. This means having enough water so that it drains out of the bottom of the pot. Punch a hole in the wrapping at the bottom so that it can drain. Use a clear plastic container to catch the water.

There is no need to fertilize plants. Fertilizing is stopped in the greenhouse after they bloom. Overwatering or fertilizing during the holidays is the most common cause of rapid death.

Finally, poinsettias are safe. They have been scrutinized over the years and are proven to be nonpoisonous plants, and safe perfectly safe for display around children and pets.

Sid Mullis is director for the University of Georgia extension service office for Richmond County. Call him at 821-2349, or send e-mail to smullis@uga.edu.