With Christmas approaching at an alarming rate, two plants immediately come to mind that require proper selection and care, poinsettias and Christmas trees.

The fragrance and beauty of a decorated tree are part of most family Christmas traditions. To keep your Christmas tree from drying out and becoming an eye-sore and potential fire hazard, you must carefully select and care for it.

When selecting a tree from a commercial lot, choose one as fresh as possible. Early selection may be beneficial if all trees were cut at the same time. Check for needle shedding and brittleness, an indication that the tree has dried out. Pull the needles. If they come off the stem easily, the tree is too dry. Bounce the butt of the tree on the ground. If many needles fall, reject the tree.

Check the shape and size of the tree's base before purchase. Select a tree that will fit your stand. The stand should be designed to hold water. The base of the tree should be free of lateral branches for at least the first 8 inches to properly fit the stand.

After selecting a tree, keep it as fresh as possible. As soon as you get it home, cut about an inch off the base and put the tree in a bucket of clean, warm water. If the tree is not to be decorated immediately, store it outdoors in the shade until ready to use. Check the water level periodically. Keep the butt end of the tree in a container of water the entire time it is in the house. Refill the container daily as the tree requires a lot of water. Sprinkling water on the branches and needles before you decorate the tree will help retain freshness. You may also want to spray the tree with some of the anti-transpirants such as Wilt Proof or Cloud Cover which reduce water loss from needles. The tree will take up a larger quantity of water at first, as much as a gallon a day, but will slack off later. Tests show that a 6-foot Christmas tree will take up between 1 and 2.5 pints per day during the 3-week season. Once the tree is put in a container of water, never allow the container to dry out. Experience shows that needle loss from trees with an interrupted water supply is far greater than needle loss from trees with a continuous supply of water. An interrupted water supply could be worse than no water.

Several home recipes and manufactured products have been used by homeowners in an attempt to prolong the freshness of a cut Christmas tree. In testing these additives, none of them provided any clear-cut benefit over the use of water alone.

When you move the tree indoors, set it away from fireplaces or other heating units. Also, do not place the tree where a heating vent will blow dry air on the foliage. Open flames, such as lighted candles, should never be used on or near the tree. In addition, never leave your home with the Christmas tree lights still on.

The longer the tree is indoors, the more combustible it will become. Check electric light cords for fraying and worn spots that could easily lead to fires. Also do not overload the electric circuits and avoid placing electric toys directly under the tree. Be sure to avoid the use of combustible decorations.

Following these care and precaution measures should insure an attractive tree that stays fresh indoors for more than a week and a holiday season free from Christmas tree mishaps.

Poinsettias require proper selection and care. The red flowering poinsettia is by far the most popular flowering potted plant for the Christmas season. White, pink, and variegated white and pink are also available. Many new, long lasting varieties of poinsettias are now available. If properly cared for, they may last a month or more after Christmas.

DON'T EAT THE FLOWERS! Every year at this time when poinsettias are being sold and displayed some folks go crazy. They want to know if poinsettias are poisonous if eaten. Who cares! We're not selling poke salad or collards here; we're talking poinsettias - - plants that are to be looked at, not eaten. The poinsettia has been declared non-poisonous. This doesn't mean that the leaves won't give you a stomach ache if you don't use the proper salad dressing and compliment the meal with the best wine selection. Rather than eating the beautiful poinsettia why not plant some seed of collards or mustard greens for future use?

Check your poinsettia daily and follow these tips:

  • Water your poinsettia frequently but don't drown it. Make sure soil remains moist, but do not allow water to remain beneath the pot in the saucer or wrapping. Too much water will cause the roots to rot, and the plant will deteriorate. One easy way to water the potting mix in which the plants are growing without flooding the living room is to use ice cubes when applying moisture, i.e.,:
  • Put 4 ice cubes (64 ml of water) per day per quart-size or 6 1/2-inch pot which is the most common size sold;
  • Put eight ice cubes (128 ml of water) per day per 8-inch pot;
  • Put twelve ice cubes (192 ml of water) per day per larger, 10-inch pot.
  • Ice cube size varies; the recommendations given are for ice cubes for which 20 melted cubes will produce 320 ml of water as measured by a standard measuring cup used for cooking.
  • Remember that this watering technique provides supplemental watering only. If the plant wilts or the potting mix in which it is growing feels dry, rehydrate the mix by soaking (floating) the pot in water (kitchen sink, clean toilet, bucket) until the roots are completely saturated – then begin the daily ice cube watering schedule again. Poinsettias are closely related to many desert plants. Their first response to dry conditions is to drop their leaves in order to cut down water loss. Plants should be checked weekly for moisture content of the potting medium, i.e., if moist, then continue the ice cube regiment; if not, water (soak) the roots.

    1. Keep the plant out of drafts. Excessively hot, dry air from heating ducts will reduce the life of the plant. Also avoid cold drafts. Poinsettias are semitropical, and cannot tolerate cold temperatures or rapid temperature changes. Temperatures between 65 and 70 degrees are ideal.
    2. Place the plant in good light, but not direct sun.
    3. And finally, after blooming, discard or begin preparing the plant to bloom again next year.
    4. Poinsettias are perhaps the most difficult flowering potted plants to rebloom indoors. Fortunately in South Texas, poinsettias can be planted directly out-of-doors in the spring after the danger of frost is past. If placed in a protected area where early fall frost won't harm it, they will make beautiful plants for the next holiday season. Fertilize as with any annual flowering plant during the growing season.
    5. Make sure that the outdoor poinsettia receives only natural sunlight. Any additional light from yard and street lights may inhibit coloring. Keep pinching out the tips of the new growth once a month so the plant will bush out. Do no pinching after August 15th. The plant should flower right on time if these procedures are followed.

QUESTION: Why are poinsettias being sold so early this year? They were never sold before Thanksgiving in the past.

ANSWER: It seems that poinsettias are being sold earlier and earlier in the year. Plants are ALREADY available in local nurseries. This Christmas plant is becoming a Thanksgiving plant and almost a Halloween plant!! How can we make the plants purchased early in the holiday season endure? Proper selection and follow-up care are important considerations when choosing poinsettias for the holiday season. Poinsettias are the featured plant in retail garden centers, florist shops, and grocery stores from mid-November through December, and are now available in a tremendous variety of bract colors ranging from red to white, marble, pink, and combinations of these colors. Red poinsettias represent around 90 percent of the market, but other colors are increasing in popularity.

Among the points to consider when purchasing poinsettia for the holidays include the size and number of the colored leaves. These are referred to as bracts. Bracts should be large and extend over the lower green leaves. The number and size of bracts usually dictate plant price. A premium quality poinsettia usually has at least six bracts and should have more. Also inspect the lower green leaves on poinsettias prior to purchase. These should have good appearance and extend over the rim of the pot. Drooping leaves may be an indication of problems. Check for insects, primarily white flies, underneath the lower leaves. The most important observation that can be made before purchasing a poinsettia is inspection of the green flower parts (cyathia) in the center of the bracts. These flower parts are an indicator of display life. Plants having large cyathia that are showing yellow pollen and sap will have the least amount of display life left, while plants with smaller cyathia, little to no pollen and no sap will have the longest display life. A poinsettia should easily last for 4?6 weeks in the home interior if proper care is provided.

To prolong the beauty and health of poinsettias once they are in the home, proper care is essential. Although poinsettias do not become acclimated to interior settings as well as most foliage plants, it is easy to be successful. First, select a location that receives some sunlight -- interior hallways are a poor location. It is also very important to avoid exposing the plant to sudden temperature changes -- this would be a problem if the poinsettia was placed near a ventilation system or in a drafty spot near a doorway. Temperatures found in most homes are acceptable. Ideally, provide 70 to 75 degree F. days and 62 to 65 degree F. nights.

Watering is the key to success. NEVER allow the soilless medium in which the plant is being grown to dry out thoroughly causing the plant to wilt. To avoid this, water DAILY by adding ice cubes DAILY to poinsettias as previously described. Ice cubes should be evenly distributed DAILY around the surface of the pot in which the plant is growing. The ice cubes melt slowly providing uniform wetting of the planting medium. Since ice cubes are added DAILY, the medium never dries and the plant never experiences a fatal wilt and loss of leaves. Watering with ice cubes also avoids water or mist on the colored bracts and or foliage. Also, adding the small amount of water contained in the ice cube avoids soaking the root system. Letting the poinsettia stand in water for more than 30 minutes to an hour can cause root damage resulting in defoliation and/or plant death.

For those who cannot part with their poinsettias after the holidays, plants can be planted outdoors in the spring after the danger of frost has passed. Cut the plant back halfway and select a sunny, well-drained location isolated from north winds and frost pockets. Poinsettias placed on the south side of the house usually will do well. Poinsettias can be kept bushy and compact when growing in the landscape or a container by pinching the top inch from new shoots when these shoots reach 5 to 6 inches long. These branches will then produce several laterals at each place where the pinching is done. In order for poinsettias to bloom and develop foliage color, do not pinch after late August/early September.


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