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Southern Gardening: Colorful poinsettias set holiday mood indoors

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Gary Bachman

THis seasons are a favorite – but aren’t they all? – To enjoy my membership in the horticultural community.

Last week, Mississippi State University hosted the first of its hopefully annual Poinsettia Open House at South Mississippi Branch Experiment Station in Poplarville. There were 37 or 38 different selections of poinsettia in their full and colorful glory for visitors to see.

The greenhouse was amazing! The color palette included red, pink, white, and funky holiday colors like yellow and orange. Spotted, marbled and assorted selections were also mixed.

It was fun talking to everyone and asking what their favorite was. Of course, it was a mixed set of results. While many love the new and interesting colors and shapes, the majority also love the traditional red selections.

This is not surprising, as red poinsettia makes up about 75 percent of sales nationwide in the United States

Many of our visitors have asked if the poinsettia is toxic to pets. This is one of those urban legends that refuses to die.

The myth of poisonous poinsettia can be traced back to 1919 when it was reported, although never confirmed, that a young child died after chewing a poinsettia leaf. This misinformation has spread faster and longer than anything circulating on social media.

The truth of the matter was settled in 1971 when researchers at Ohio State University, my two parent universities, reported results that showed neither mortality nor toxicity symptoms within test mice.

They predicted that a 50-pound child would have to consume 500 sheets of poinsettia leaves for it to be a problem. But this consumption will be self-limiting, as the poinsettia leaves an unpleasant taste. I’ve tasted the poinsettia leaf in the name of science, and I can vouch for its bad taste.

The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Pet Poisons website details that poinsettias are not poisonousOur pets, but they can cause gastrointestinal symptoms. If you’re still worried, just keep lovely poinsettias out of the reach of fur babies.

The latex sap from these aquarium plants is likely to cause some contact dermatitis in humans, especially those allergic to latex. So always wash your hands after handling a poinsettia.

Now for some poinsettia trivia.

Did you know that the color of the poinsettia is not its flowers? The color actually comes from modified leaf structures called bracts. Poinsettia flowers are small pea-shaped buds called cyathea, which are clustered in the center. For the longest decorating fun, look for plants your cyathea hasn’t started opening yet.

Poinsettias account for about 25 percent of total sales of potted flowering plants. In 2017, more than 35 million poinsettias were sold. Personally, I think that this number is too low and that more poinsettias have already been bought.

In their native Mexico, the poinsettia is called Flores de Noche Buena, the flowers of the holy night.

So, if you’ve already brought home some of these beauties, or plan to do so soon, here are some tips for keeping your poinsettia happy for the holidays.

Poinsettias need at least six hours of indirect sunlight and comfortable room temperatures. If you’re comfortable, the poinsettia will be happy in your space. Protect them from temperature changes caused by cold or warm drafts, either of which will result in shedding of leaves and splintering.

Poinsettia is sensitive to wet feet, so don’t over water your plants.

Remove the decorative casing and water it in the sink, letting the pots dry completely. You can return the decorative wrap after the plant has dried. Use a protective bowl to protect the furniture from forming a water ring.

Visit your local independent garden center and take a pair — or a dozen — of poinsettias home for the holidays.

Gary Bachman is Professor of Extension and Research in Horticulture at the Coastal Research and Extension Center at Mississippi State University in Biloxi. Call him at [email protected]

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