poinsettia

The holidays can’t last all year — but your poinsettia and Christmas cactus certainly can.

Question: Can I keep my poinsettias alive after Christmas?

Answer: You absolutely can and should, here’s how.

Poinsettia plants (Euphorbia pulcherrima) are native to Mexico and Central America. Discovered by Joel Robert Poinsett, an ambassador to Mexico under John Quincy Adams, the plant was brought to California around 1829. Poinesttia is a tropical plant and as such it does very well in our sub-tropical climate.

Referred to in its native countries as lobster flower’ or flame leaf, the poinsettia’s blooms are actually the small yellowish parts at the end of the branches. The color comes from the bracts, which are really just modified colorful leaves.

These plants can hold their color for just a few weeks or as long as 6 months. Mine from last year was still in full color in May! It killed me to trim it, but I did it anyway. With just a few specific needs met, you can have re-blooming poinsettias year after year.

As with other euphobias, these plants do not like wet feet. Make sure there is good drainage in the area you intend to plant them. Standing water will drown them. They do benefit from regular watering, though. In containers they can dry out quickly, but once planted in the ground and established they can be quite easy to care for.

Morning sun and afternoon shade is ideal for a poinsettia. Hot summer afternoon sun will stress them and the leaves tend to burn. Trimming 4 to 6 inches off each branch in early summer will encourage a fuller plant, but don’t wait too long to do this or you’ll interrupt the bloom cycle.

The middle of May is the perfect time for trimming. You can then pinch an inch off the fresh new growth to further encourage more shoots as late as mid-June, but stop after that.

The main trick to ensure re-blooming is controlling the amount of light your plants receive in the fall. Timely blooming will happen when the plants are in total darkness for 12 hours from mid-October until bloom time, typically early December. This means keeping them away from street lights, porch lights and house lights. I’ve known folks who covered their plants with a cardboard box overnight in the fall. Once the colorful bracts have matured to size, controlling the light is no longer an issue.

Poinsettia plants are quite easy to grow. You may encounter some aphid or white fly issues, but neem oil works just fine to control them. A lot of people are concerned about the poisonous aspect of this plant, but that’s been overhyped. The sap can be an irritant to mucous membranes or sensitive skin. The leaves and stems can be mildly toxic to animals if the silly critters actually eat them, but not to the point of death.

How about the other leftover seasonal plants that can have a permanent home in your world? Christmas cactus, amaryallis, geraniums, chrysanthemums and hydrangea, just to name a few.

Wait, did I say hydrangea? I would never propose planting hydrangea plants in the ground in our area. The soil is way too alkaline and you’d be doomed to failure — but in containers, hydrangea plants can survive and even thrive. The fact that potting soils are generally neutral to acidic, which is what hydrangea plants like, makes it a great candidate for a long-term container plant. Protect it from intense summer sun but give it plenty of sun in the cooler months and you’ll have it blooming again in the fall and early winter.

Christmas cactus (Schlumbergera sp.) originated in the rainforests of southern Brazil, where they are epiphytic and live in tree canopies. Naturally, they like humid environments. Huh, pretty sure we have that here.

Little to no care is required for the most part. Well-drained soil and protection from afternoon sun are all that is really needed. Water as needed to keep the soil lightly moist, use a liquid fertilizer a few times a year, and you’re all set to go. Christmas cactus plants have been known to live for 50 years or more, making them a great plant to pass down to younger family members.

Christmas cacti have an impressive bloom period in their growth cycle which may last several weeks to several months. The bloom cycle is dependent on cooler temperatures and longer periods of darkness, which we experience naturally this time of year.

Pinching a few leaves off the tips of the plant in early summer will lead to a fuller, well-branched plant. The leaves you pinch off will easily take root in vermiculite or peat moss, making more plants. Large plants can be divided as well.

Christmas cactus can be planted in the ground in loose well-drained soil as long as the light is bright but shaded for most of the day. I have better luck with them in containers, hanging in my trees with the orchids and staghorn ferns.

Amaryllis and mums can be planted directly into the ground, with lots of morning sun and afternoon shade being preferred by both. Each of these plants will bloom again and again as their particular season of bloom dictates.

Geraniums can be a little fussy in the heat and constant humidity of summer, but I’ve had some success by keeping them out of the afternoon sun and tucking them under the gumbo limbo tree. Cutting geraniums back a few times during the summer as they get leggy under the lower light conditions helps to keep them full.

I’m sure a lot of you purchased a tiny Norfolk Island pine with some cute little bows and ornaments on it this Christmas. It’s adorable, but resist the temptation to plant that one. These trees get massive — 60 feet high and as wide as 35 feet — and they grow fast.

Have you got room for that in your yard? You could plant it now, then pay someone big bucks to remove it in 10 years. Better yet, just keep it in a pot. You can put more bows and cute little ornaments on it next year, and maybe some lights when it gets bigger.

So here’s the gig: When you think of poinsettia plants, or any plant that is typically associated with a specific holiday, forget the holiday and just enjoy a beautiful plant for months or for years.

Becky Copenhaver is a Charlotte County Master Gardener, Certified Horticulture Professional and Certified Landscape Designer. She owns and operates the newly opened Becky’s Garden Shoppe (6450 Elliot Street, Punta Gorda). Contact her at 941-621-8551 or BeckysGardenShoppe@comcast.net.

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