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Poinsettias offer exceptional holiday beauty

When the holidays arrive, the plant that is on the top of everyone’s list besides the Christmas tree is the poinsettia. It was 190 years ago in 1825 that the first Ambassador to Mexico, Joel Roberts Poinsett, introduced the plant to the United States.

The colorful parts of a poinsettia are actually modified leaves known as bracts. The true flowers are the small, yellow buttons in the centers of the bracts. The traditional color may be red but colors and varieties today have reached staggering numbers.

Though I have been in the green industry a lot of years, I am still awestruck when I walk into a greenhouse full of poinsettias. This recently happened as I was visiting with a local producer close to sunset, and a house full of the Early Glory poinsettias produced that Kodak Moment.

The variety Early Glory is most likely unfamiliar to you. You are probably unaware that there are even different named varieties. In fact at one of the recent east coast poinsettia trials there were 212 varieties listed.

When it comes to poinsettias I am like a kid in a candy store, I love them all. The Early Glory I mentioned immediately mesmerized me. Then in the next house it was Carousel Dark Red. This one is considered to be a novelty poinsettia, kind of like Winter Rose. Carousel has wavy to crinkled bracts borne on stiff sturdy branches. It is such a dazzler we elected to use this in our most prominent places of decoration.

Monet was my favorite pink variety, then the light pink Visions of Grandeur came out and I thought that was the prettiest poinsettia ever. Next, the Punch series caught my eye and I said to myself, “I will always have to have Ice Punch,” with such a breathtaking variegation of red and white I thought it must be the perfect Christmas plant.

So you see the dilemma, both for me and for greenhouse producers. There is just no way one could grow them all. What is important is that you shop for poinsettias now. Poinsettias can hold their color way past Christmas if you shop wisely. Look for plants with fully mature, thoroughly colored and expanded bracts, and small green flower buds. Select plants with dark green foliage down to the soil line. This indicates a healthy root system.

Reject plants with damaged or discolored foliage and select symmetrical plants in proportion to their containers. As a rule of thumb, poinsettias should be  2 1/2 times bigger than their pots. In other words, a 15- to 18-inch-tall plant looks best in a 6-inch container.

Durable plants promise weeks of enjoyment. Look for strong, stiff stems, good leaf and bract retention, and no signs of wilting, breaking or drooping. Carefully inspect packaged poinsettias before purchasing them. Poinsettias left in sleeves for an extended period of time may become unhealthy. The problem most often encountered with poinsettias centers around watering. With the busy holiday season, forgetting to water can be disastrous for a poinsettia. Feel the soil and water when it is dry to the touch.

Norman Winter is director of the Coastal Georgia Botanical Gardens at the Historic Bamboo Farm, University of Georgia Cooperative Extension, and author of Tough-as-Nails Flowers for the South and Captivating Combinations: Color and Style in the Garden. Follow him at: @CGBGgardenguru