by Mary Jane Butters

Question: Every holiday season, someone gives me a poinsettia. They're probably mass-produced somewhere. It seems wasteful. Is there such a thing as an organically grown poinsettia?

-- Cindy Palmer, Moorhead, Minnesota

Mary Jane: 'Tis the season for poinsettias and giving gifts to friends and relatives who light up our lives. If you end up with one of the 70 million commercially grown poinsettias sold every year in the U.S., think rescue. Today, 80 percent of all poinsettias in the world get their start on a single ranch in California, in greenhouses that cover 40 acres. If you pamper your poinsettia so it lasts through several holiday seasons, it won't seem so wasteful. The Aztecs used the poinsettia they called Cuetlayochitl in midwinter celebrations, harvesting the colorful leaves for a reddish-purple dye. They used another part of the plant to counteract fever. They are named after a U.S. Minister to Mexico called Joel Roberts Poinsett.

Although the leaves are not "edible" (i.e., don't put them in your salad mix), they are not considered poisonous to children and pets. Ohio State University conducted a study showing that a child weighing 50 pounds might have a slight tummy ache after eating 500 bracts. (The colorful "flowers" are actually modified leaves, called bracts. The real flowers can be found in the center of the bracts.)

Red is a complementary color to green, a great addition to the holiday season. Take advantage of that and use your poinsettia in a creative and decorative way.

First of all, get rid of the foil wrapped around the plastic pot. If you place the plastic pot inside a basket, it will soften how you feel about this over-commercialized plant. If you're up for it, transplant it from its original plastic pot into a slightly larger pot.

Next, carry the plant to different parts of your house, looking for areas that seem enhanced by the color of your poinsettia. Try it in different locations, making sure it isn't located in a drafty location or in a spot where its leaves touch a cold windowpane.

One or more hours of direct sunlight every day is ideal. Don't locate it too close to a heat source, since the blooming time will last longer if temperatures range between 65 and 70 & ordm;F during the day and 55 to 60 & ordm;F at night. The poinsettia shouldn't be fertilized when it is in bloom. Water it only after the soil has almost dried, allowing water to run through the drainage holes, but don't allow it to wilt. Never let it sit in standing water.

After the holidays are over, keep your plant for several months indoors. When all danger of frost has passed, cut and remove the remaining colorful leaves or bracts, leaving four to six inches on each stem. This will promote new growth. If you haven't done so already, now is the time to transplant your poinsettia to a larger container. Set it on a sunny porch that has some shade in the afternoon. An east-facing porch is ideal. The poinsettia will receive morning sun but never get burnt from harsh afternoon sunlight. With its summer green leaves, rather than the colorful ones associated with the holidays, you'll regard your plant as you do your other outdoor plants, watering, fertilizing, and pruning as needed to promote new growth. Be sure to bring your poinsettia indoors again when night temperatures fall below 55 & ordm;F. If you want your plant to become colorful again for the holidays, you need to create winter in October. To do this, your poinsettia will need plenty of sunshine during the day and close to 14 hours of darkness at night. Every evening, make a temporary home for it in a dark closet or put a lightproof bag or box over it, making sure it doesn't receive any stray light. If you start by October 1, you should have a colorful poinsettia once again by Thanksgiving, if not earlier.

If you aren't in the mood for finding ways to bond with your poinsettia, visit a nursing home, hospital, or an elderly neighbor and ask if they can provide a home for your plant. A poinsettia might brighten someone else's day.

As more and more U.S. growers perfect small-scale flower production and find support among consumers, a source for organically grown poinsettias isn't too far off in the future.

Santa Express

Through Dec. 20
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