A rather odd sight greeted me during my most recent shift at work: the poinsettia plant that a co-worker has carefully nurtured since last Christmas has now taken up residency UNDER one of the side tables in the staff room, nestled in the cosy dark corner away from the windows. Obviously the idea is to encourage the plant’s leaves (the modified ones botanists call bracts) to turn the pink colour that this particular cultivar of Euphorbia pulcherrima sports…and hopefully accomplish this by Christmas, when the festive colour will brighten up the room. (The actual flowers of a poinsettia are cyathia, those little yellow/greenish bits in the centre of the bracts). Unfortunately, despite our efforts, it’s not likely that we’ll get this particular poinsettia to turn colour by Christmas…or even later than that. We don’t have the right set-up in our staff room – there is actually too much light in there, even when all the lights are off in the building and it seems perfectly dark under that heavy table. The trouble is that we cannot offer the plant the short day lengths (12 hours or less of light) that they require to “bloom.” Ideally, to get a poinsettia to turn colour, you need to be able to put it in complete darkness for at least twelve to fifteen hours, at night, for two to three months…and I mean COMPLETE darkness. The old idea of putting the plant in a closet overnight is a good one, except that if you open the closet and the ambient light gets inside, or if light comes in through the space under the door, the plant’s cycle will be interrupted and set it back. Our side table in our staff room cannot offer the enclosed darkness the plant requires, for the duration it requires – we’ll ruin the plant’s cycle every time the cleaning staff go in and turn on the lights so that they can vaccuum, or we accidentally leave the window blinds open just a crack, exposing the room to the streetlights and traffic outside. If, however, you have a really great dark area that never gets disturbed in the evening hours, and if you have the patience and perserverence to move the plant back and forth between it’s daytime “sunny” location and it’s night-time slumbering spot, for ten to twelve weeks, you may be rewarded with beautiful Christmas colour. Try it next year! (And don’t forget to water and fertilize the plant as usual while you’re moving it back and forth…for some reason, there is a persistent belief that you should “starve” the plant a little during this time, which makes absolutely no sense at all).
Oh, and because it always comes up in discussion at this time of year, poinsettias are actually not particularly poisonous…they’re unpalatable. They do have a milky substance in them, a latex that can cause annoying and possibly serious skin irritation if you’re allergic to the stuff. (Try handling hundreds of them without gloves! I know from experience how silly that is!). And if your cat or dog or baby eats a bit of the plant, it may make their tummies ache…but don’t worry about them sampling the plant a second time, as it apparently tastes really awful and won’t likely encourage subsequent nibbles. They’ll get over the stomach upset. If your pet is old or very young or already unwell, eating parts of a poinsettia may cause more harmful effects, obviously. Keep the plants out of easy reach, as you would with any other plant, even if it’s not a toxic one.
Enjoy these Mexican beauties, and try some of the interesting cultivars that are now available (or will be within the next few years). The University of Florida has been trialing one called ‘Tapestry,’ with variegated yellow and green leaves and red bracts, as well as a more delicate type called ‘Ruby Frost,’ with intriguing red and white bracts. Selecta offers a couple of new ones: ‘Citronella,’ with rich yellow bracts (of course), and ‘Marbella,’ with extremely dark green leaves and pink/cream bracts. Of course, the ones with the deep red bracts remain the most popular…and indeed, year after year, I always seem to jump onto that particular bandwagon even though so many other colours are available. What is your favourite variety? (And your thoughts on that whole spray-on glitter thing?).