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The Truth about
the Poinsettia

 


The Poinsettia is one of the most popular Christmas plants in North America, and most homes have at least one of these attractive plants gracing a table or windowsill. It's to bad so many have grown to fear this lovely Christmas treasure.

Like me, you have most likely read a warning like this: "Don't ever leave your children or pets alone with a poinsettia plant, these plants are deadly poisonous and every year there are several children and pets killed at Christmas time by taking even the slightest nibble from a poinsettia plant."

The poinsettia poison myth had its origin in 1919 when a two-year-old child of an Army officer stationed in Hawaii died of poisoning, and the cause was incorrectly assumed to be a poinsettia leaf.

Every year I hear the same myth, from newspaper articles to television news programs, even the NBC Today show repeated the warning this year. I am as guilty as the next person, at one time I even warned people of the dangers of this plant.

The truth is that since that 1919 incidence, there hasn't been one documented case of a child dying from eating a poinsettia plant. A 50 lb. child would have to eat more than 1.25 lbs. of poinsettia bracts (about 500 to 600 leaves) to exceed the experimental doses, according to the POISINDEX Information Service. (POISINDEX is the primary resource used by most poison control centers.)

Further, the American Medical Association's Handbook of Poisonous and Injurious Plants lists nothing more than occasional vomiting as a side effect of ingesting otherwise harmless poinsettia leaves. And in 1975 the Consumer Products Safety Commission cited lack of substantial evidence in its decision to deny a petition requiring warning labels for poinsettias. (Perhaps the confused warnings came about because the genus to which the poinsettia belongs -- Euphorbia -- includes several plants that are toxic.)

It is not surprising that this myth continues to live on, in a 1995 poll of the Society of American Florist, 66% still believed that poinsettias are toxic if eaten. It's about time we stop fearing this lovely plant and start enjoying it.

We must also remember that any plant or food can be poisonous to some one who has a particular allergy towards it, and that the smaller the child or animals the less of any given foreign plant product is safe. I still recommend that small children, cats and dogs are discouraged from eating ANY houseplant, and that all plants are safely out of reach of small children. All this usually means is placing the plant up high and in an area it can be monitored.

Experts working with poinsettia say that they doubt that any child or animal would willingly eat more than one bit, the taste they describe is a bad as the most bitter radicchio, and it has an awful, indescribable flavour.

Now that Christmas is past, what do you do with those lovely poinsettias?

Water:
A wilted plant will drop its leaves prematurely, so take the time to examine the soil daily, and when the surface is dry to the touch, water the soil until it runs freely out the drainage hole in the container. Plants kept at low humidity, in high light will need more frequent watering. If caught quickly and watered a wilted plant will come back to normal in about five minutes.

Never leave a poinsettia in standing water, this results in the soil becoming overly wet and lacking sufficient air circulation, resulting in root injury.

Temperature:
To keep these lovely plants blooming as long as possible, they need to maintain a temperature of 65 to 70 degrees F during the daylight hours and, if possible they should be moved to a cooler place at night. Because root rot disease is more prevalent at temperatures below 60 degrees F, do not put the poinsettia in a room colder than this. Avoid exposing the plant to hot or cold drafts, which may cause premature leaf drop.

Reflowering
This is something everyone asks me, "If you keep your Poinsettias can they flower again for next Christmas?" Unless a yearlong schedule of care is observed, the results usually are not good. If you are one of those people that can follow such a schedule, by all means give it a try and you will be surprised at the lovely results.

The first thing you need to know is to continue normal watering of the soil until the first of April, then allow it to dry gradually. Do not let it get so dry at any time that the stems shrivel. Following the drying period, store the plant in a cool (60 degrees F), airy location on its side or upright.

In the middle of May, cut the stems back to about 4 inches above the soil, and either replant in a pot 1 to 2 inches larger in diameter or shake old soil off the roots and repot in the same container, using a new soil less mix. Many good commercial potting mixes are available. Choose one that is not very finely textured. Using soil from the garden can introduce disease to the plant. Water the soil thoroughly after potting; wait five minutes and water again. Then put the plant near the window that is exposed to the most sunlight. Keep the plant at a temperature of 65 to 75 degrees F, and water when the surface of the soil is dry to the touch. After new growth appears, fertilize every two weeks with a complete-analysis, water-soluble fertilizer at the rate recommended on the label for flowering plants. Organic gardeners can use a liquid fish fertilizer or manure tea if you have a place to make it inside.

In early June, leave the plant in the pot, move it outdoors, and place it in a lightly shaded location. Continue watering and fertilizing the plant while it is outdoors. Pinch each stem (remove 1 inch of terminal growth) in early July. Then, between August 15 and September 1, cut or pinch the new stems back, allowing three or four leaves to remain on each shoot. After this second pinch, bring the plant indoors and again place it near a window with a sunny exposure. If the plant is not pinched, it will grow too tall and be unsightly. Keep the plant at a temperature of 65 to 70 degrees F at night and continue watering and fertilizing.

Poinsettias are short-day plants, which means they flower about 10 weeks after the daylight shortens to about 12 hours or less. Therefore, to have the plant in full flower by Christmas, keep it in complete darkness between 5 p.m. and 8 a.m. from the first part of October until Thanksgiving. During this period, any kind of light exposure between 5 p.m. and 8 a.m. will delay flowering. A closet, opaque box or opaque cloth will keep the plant in darkness during those hours. Remember to put the plant near a sunny window in the daytime. Continue fertilizing the plant until mid-December. THE END




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