Gardening: Extending the life of your poinsettia

Eileen Ward
Columnist
Red flowers on Poinsettia plant.

Most of us have at least one poinsettia in the house for the holidays. A lot of people hate to throw away those holiday poinsettias and wonder if they can plant them in the yard. Yes, you can but sometimes it takes work to grow a healthy and long-lived poinsettia in the landscape.

Poinsettias are usually grown as Christmas potted plants so there has been little interest in developing them for landscape use.  They come in two cultivars, self-branching and single-stemmed.  The single-stemmed variety require periodic pinching of the terminal growth to develop a compact plant.  Prune through early September and buds will develop on the new growth in early October.  Self-branching poinsettias do not need pinching.  However, they should be thinned if they become too dense to help prevent disease and insect problems due to low air movement through the shrub.

Poinsettias are woody perennials and begin blooming as early as Thanksgiving when grown outdoors.  The colorful bracts, which most people confuse with the flowers, will last until March or later unless plants are exposed to freezing temperatures.

These plants are very cold sensitive and often blooming is interrupted before or soon after it begins by cold weather.  Consequently, a poinsettia in the landscape may or may not flower for you every year at Christmas.  Plants killed to the soil line by a freeze usually send up new shoots from the crown in spring.

Poinsettias should be planted where they will have full sun most of the day.  It is also helpful if they receive no light at night during the bud setting period in early October.  They require a long dark period before they will initiate flower buds.  You should not interrupt the dark period with light from a window, streetlight or any other light source as flowering will be delayed or will not take place at all. Just a short period of light during the dark period is enough to delay or prevent flowering.  When planting poinsettias in the landscape they should be planted where it will be completely dark during the night.

Poinsettias will grow in a wide range of soils including sand, muck, marl and clay but grow best in moist, well drained, fertile soils.  Be sure the soil is well drained as poinsettias don't grow well in wet areas.  Christmas poinsettias can be planted outdoors as soon as danger of frost is past, usually after March 15th.  Plant it in the ground at the same depth it was growing in the container.

Plants should be fertilized monthly with a 6-6-6 fertilizer from March through October.  Neglecting to fertilize them will result in yellow leaves and loss of lower leaves.

Prolonged dryness will also result in loss of lower leaves.  Soil should be kept moist, but not wet, at all times.  You must pay careful attention to the irrigation of your poinsettias.

Pests that attack poinsettias include aphids, mealybugs, soft scales, white fly and spider mites.  The poinsettia hornworm can rapidly defoliate an entire plant.  Watch for your beneficial insects or treat with the appropriate chemical for control.

Diseases include poinsettia scab which causes circular spots of a light cream color on the veins of the leaves and raised, elongated lesions on stems and leaf petioles.  Scab is most prevalent in summer and infected branches should be pruned and discarded as soon as noticed.  They can also be attacked by fungi causing both root and stem rots.  These diseases are more prevalent where the soil remains wet.  Hence, the importance of a well-drained planting site.  When the disease is too advanced for control the plant should be removed and the soil treated with a fumigant or fungicidal drench before replanting another poinsettia.

Poinsettias are a very large shrub when planted in the landscape so be sure to pick an appropriate location for its size.  You're probably better off discarding your holiday poinsettias along with the Christmas tree.  But if you must plant them in the landscape the pointers above should help you grow healthy poinsettias you can enjoy year after year.

Christmas in Florida.  The balmy weather, palm trees swaying in the gentle breezes off the Gulf of Mexica and yards with green grass and colorful flowers.  If you grew up in the north like I did your visions of Christmas are filled with pine trees and snow not palm trees and sunshine.  The first few years you live here it just doesn't feel like Christmas!  But you get used to it and the cold fronts and rainy December weather help put you in the mood for the holidays.  In fact, Christ was born in Bethlehem, a land with landscapes and weather much like ours  here on Marco Island.  So, decorate your palm trees and rejoice in the fact that this is what Christmas is supposed to look like.

I wish you all the happiest of holidays.

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Peter and Eileen Ward have sold Greensward of Marco after 40 years in the lawn and landscape business on Marco Island. You can reach Eileen with comments or questions on her columns via email at Gswdmarco@comcast.net or call 239-269-0192.