Sandy’s Garden ... Poinsettias Again

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Ten years ago - can it really be so long?

On an occasion when we invited readers to submit questions, Joanne asked: “Have you any tips about how to look after a poinsettia plant? Last year, my beautiful poinsettia was finished by the middle of January, but a friend still had hers in first-class condition in March … and she paid a lot less than I did! Where am I going wrong?”

Well, ten years on, some of the advice which I gave Joanne then is every bit as relevant today. My answer then began with these words: “Joanne, the first thing to say is that your friend may well have started with a better plant than you bought, for price is not everything. Far more important than price is buying as plant that’s in good nick … and that’s not easy to tell, for every garden centre, every florist and every supermarket has splendid-looking poinsettias right there by the door to tempt you to buy one for Christmas.”

And some of them still do, although their number is less than it was a decade ago. I am delighted to be able to say that rather more shop owners and managers have learned that the last place you display poinsettias in December is right by the shop door, never mind outside on the pavement. These beautiful houseplants have been grown in strictly temperature-controlled nurseries. They have been scientifically brought on to be at their best right now. Believe it or not, they very possibly travelled from the nursery to the point of sale in a temperature-controlled van. And there are still some shops and … shamefully … the occasional garden centre whose proprietors or managers display them either in the bitter winds that sweep into the retailer’s premises every time anyone comes in or goes out or, worse still, try to tempt customers to buy one by showing them off outside the shop. Poinsettias which have been treated like that have undoubtedly caught a severe chill and they’re very sick indeed, even though they don’t yet look it. Believe me, these plants will not recover, for no amount of dosing them with proprietary cold cures will do them any good at all. They are terminally ill.

Always buy your poinsettia … whether you pay £1.99 or £9.99 … from a retailer who has them on display well away from bitter draughts. Remember, too, that the best ones are not necessarily the most expensive. Pentland Plants, one of Scotland’s biggest and best plant nurseries, has been growing 80 000 poinsettias for a supermarket chain; and I bet they’re not the most expensive examples around! So it’s up to you to check that the flower heads … the tiny, pale buds in the heart of the topmost red leaves that make the plant so attractive … are still in bud. (You do know that the usually red-coloured bits are actually leaves, not flowers?). Right, check the actual buds. Now heft the pot in your hand. If it feels much too light for its size, it’s probably too dry; and conversely, if you are surprised at how heavy it is, it’s certainly too wet. Choose one which feels about right to you. Then take it straight home … don’t leave it in a cold car while you do the rest of your shopping. Keep it cosy … don’t put it near an outside door or on a cold windowsill … and keep it in a brightly-lit room. You must make allowances for the fact that the poor thing has been duped into thinking that it’s summer time. Would you want to dress, eat, drink and act as you do on a warm summer’s day when it’s actually December? And finally, follow the simple instructions that are on the label that should accompany it by keeping it cosy, waiting until its compost is nearly dry before watering it and then giving it a good drink; and hey presto! – you too can enjoy a beautiful houseplant throughout the darkest winter months.

Sandy Simpson, Polmont Horticultural Society