Home & Garden Columns

Garden Variety: Happy Holidays, Everyone, And Remember to Keep The Sol in Solstice

By Ron Sullivan
Friday December 21, 2007

One of the more common plants to be handed about as décor and, say, hostess gifts is the poinsettia. It’s a Christmas cliché, and it’s been around long enough that some people have found it necessary to call it names and dismiss it. Others have bred it into some fairly weird forms: dappled, ruffled, wrinkled, ivory, pink. I myself like all but the pink, because who needs more pink? But de gustibus non est disputandum.  

It is possible to kill them. The first Yule tree Joe and I had together—ah, memories!—was a dead poinsettia stick with a single ornament, a porcelain cockroach with glided legs that we bought at the KPFA Craft Fair back when it was less of an expensive expedition. I don’t think we killed the plant ourselves but I don’t remember where it came from. 

Poinsettias are euphorbs, as you can demonstrate by breaking a leaf or stem: white latex sap will drool out. Don’t mess with it; it’s an irritant, though not so toxic as is widely believed. The “flowers” are really showy bracts—leaves—and those cute buds in the center are the functioning blooms.  

Water them only when the top of the soil is dry, and at least poke holes in that foil wrapping and put the plant in a saucer for drainage. Near but not right in a sunny window is a good spot, though you can put them anywhere for a day or two, strictly for aesthetics.  

There’s a complicated dance involving fertilizers and closets or tarps that you can do if you want one to rebloom next year. Theoretically they won’t set blooms unless they have long periods of complete darkness; commercial growers use greenhouses darkened daily with black tents.  

I’ve seen individual plants defy this, though, and poinsettias in general will do just fine outdoors for years here, given a bit of shelter from wind and some decent drainage. A mound of soil close to the south side of the house seems to work. They tend to get spindly, so an prune annually to some low nodes. See how much it grows the first year and allow for more.  

Poinsettias are prone to a host of bacterial and fungal diseases in moist conditions, though, and we have those here. If your gift should die, console yourself that you gave it a chance, which is more than most get. This strikes me as a plant one might rent instead of buy, in a rational economy, rather like hiring a Santa for the office party instead of keeping some bearded guy on the payroll all year. Compost the remains in a hot pile or put them in the green bin so whatever killed them doesn’t spread. 

If it survives, it’s showing you the spot to plant next year’s poinsettia. If you’re a sucker like some people I could mention, you might find yourself taking in the neighbors’ discards too. Don’t say I didn’t warn you. 


Ron Sullivan is a former professional gardener and arborist. Her “Garden Variety” column appears every Friday in the Daily Planet’s East Bay Home & Real Estate section. Her column on East Bay trees appears every other Tuesday in the Daily Planet.