Text and photographs are © by Ellen Spector Platt & Ellen Zachos, all rights reserved.


Thursday, December 11, 2008

Just say no!

If you're a poinsettia lover, I'll give you a second or two to navigate away from this page, because I'm going on a rant. An anti-poinsettia rant.

The poinsettia (Euphorbia pulcherrima) was attractive before people got their hands on it. It's native to Mexico where it can grow up to 10 feet tall. Its flowers are orangey-red and it's not a bad looking shrub. Alas, that's not the plant you're going to find at your local florist this holiday season.


Today's poinsettia is a fussy, bloated, short-lived plant, prone to whitefly and bract drop, highly unlikely to bloom again in your home. Yet it accounts for 85% of holiday potted plant sales in the U.S. Why? Because someone is a marketing genius. Pushed as the perfect living holiday decoration/ hostess present, you can pick one up in any corner deli, on your way to the party.

But take a minute to think. This is a plant that is almost certainly never going to bloom again. Unless you can give it COMPLETE darkness from 5 pm to 8 am starting on about October 1st. And I mean COMPLETE. Walking into the dark room and turning on the light to look for something in the closet, even if it's only for a minute, can ruin the whole thing. Nighttime temps above 70 degrees can also impede flowering.

If you want to give a plant as a holiday gift there are several alternatives that allow you to maintain the traditional color scheme. All of them re-flower reliably indoors and will live for years without forcing you (or your hostess) to tiptoe around in a dark house.




Coralberry (Ardisia crenata) is a wonderful plant that produces a long-lasting crop of red berries. (Seriously, these berries can last an entire year.) It flourishes in an east or west facing window and its leaves are a glossy dark green with crenellated margins. It develops a woody stem over time and will probably get to be about 3-4 feet tall as a potted specimen.





Crown of thorns (Euphorbia milii) is a relative of the
poinsettia but much less temperamental. It blooms year-round in an eastern or western window and has no special temperature requirements. Yes, it has a few thorns. Don't poke them and they won't poke you.





Scarlet plume (Euphorbia fulgens) is another poinsettia relative, easy to grow in southern, eastern, or western light, and not fussy about temperature.



If you're determined to fuss a little, try a holiday cactii (Schlumbergia and Zygocactus species). You can either give them a cool treatment (keeping them at about 50-55 degrees) OR keep them dark (from 8 pm-8am) from mid-October until you notice buds forming. Unlike with the poinsettia, a stray beam of light here and there isn't going to ruin your chances of bloom.

These plants can bring you joy for years (not weeks!). All of them are less prone to insect predation than the poinsettia, and at least two (crown of thorns and holiday cactus) are easy to find, in neighborhood florists and big box stores. So just say no to the ubiquitous poinsettia and choose a holiday plant that is truly a worthy gift.

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