The 12 days of Christmas plants -- poinsettias

How to by and care for poinsettias.

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This is the second in our series on how to buy and care for the most common holiday plants. Once upon a time, this Mexican native was such a finicky plant that it rarely last much beyond the end of  December, if that long.

Boy, have things changed! Now it's not at all unusual for a poinsettia to look good all the way till Easter.

If that hasn't been your experience, here's what you need to know:

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In the store, when you're choosing the plant, look for deep green leaves all the way to the base. Move the foil back at the bottom of the foliage to see if any leaves have turned yellow from lack of light.

If you want the freshest plant available -- one, typically, that should last longer because you're going to give it better care at your home than it received in a big-box store -- look at the tiny little yellow buttonlike flowers in the middle of the colored bracts.

If they're closed or barely open, the plant is very fresh. If they're missing (having already fallen off), it's been around a while. See if you can find another.

OK, let's stop a second here for those of who might be confused by the word "bracts" and who think those little yellow things in the center of all that red couldn't possibly be the flowers of the plant. If you know all this stuff, skip the next paragraph.

The showy red (cream, pink, yellow, or bicolor) parts of a poinsettia are called bracts. They're actually there to entice pollinating insects to visit the inconspicuous flowers.

Once you've picked the poinsettia you want, make sure that the store gently wraps it up if temperatures are 50 degrees F. (10 C ) or lower. On a cold day, you'll want to take the plant right home, not leave it in the car while you do the rest of your holiday shopping. Poinsettias don't respond well to shivery weather.

The first thing to do after you have the plant back home is remove the foil wrapping. It blocks light from reaching the lower leaves and encourages root rot because water collects in the bottom.

Better to put the plant into a cachepot if you want something decorative. There, you can see if there's standing water in the bottom that you need to pour off.

If you can't bring yourself to do that, at the very least move the foil back from the base of the plant and poke good-sized holes in the bottom so water can drain out. (Then put the plant n a saucer, of course.)

Place the plant where it will receive at least six hours of bright light daily but not touch a cold windowpane. I know, I know. You bought the plant as a decoration, and it should be on the coffee table or the fireplace mantel, not a windowsill.

But give it light during the day -- to keep it happy and looking good -- then move it to wherever you like in the evening.

Avoid spots that will chill or heat the plant too much -- on top of the TV, in the entrance hall near the front door, or in front of a heating vent or fireplace.

These days poinsettias can tolerate most normal household temperatures,  but 65 to 75  degrees F. (18 to 24 C) is optimum.

All that's left to do is keep the soil moist but not water-logged. That is, don't let the plant stand in water. The top of the soil should feel slightly moist to the touch.

And, oh yes, despite what you may have believed, poinsettias are not poisonous to people. According to the University of Illinois, a study showed that a 50-pound child who ate 500 bracts might have a slight tummy ache.

Finally, if you worry about such things, you can pronounce the name of the plant either poin-SET-ee-uh or poin-SET-uh.

There are many stories about the poinsettia. Read the legend of the poinsettia. And here's its history. I think that knowing both makes the plant much more interesting.

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