Seeing Red

Caring for Poinsettias

By Virginia Hayes

I was driving home from the post office the other day and there it was — one of the big, mature poinsettia shrubs that grace some of the older neighborhoods. I’ve been driving by it all year, of course, but now it has put out its red bracts to celebrate winter in immodest style. Having dropped most of its green leaves, the remaining red display is enough to knock your socks off. This particular specimen is easily 10 feet tall, almost up to the eave of the modest bungalow it grows by. It is equally as wide, spreading across a large portion of the south-facing wall it graces.

This is the prime type of planting site for poinsettias in our climate. While poinsettias can survive temperatures down to 25 degrees or so, they prefer the kind of warmth reminiscent of their native habitat in Mexico. Placing one against a wall to take advantage of the reflected heat, especially one getting maximum solar collection from the south, can’t be beat. The only other requirement is to make sure it has well-drained soil. Cold, wet soil through the winter is the most common cause of failure with this otherwise easy-to-grow plant.

If you end up with a potted poinsettia this season, here’s how to nurture it until the holidays are over. Keep it in high light during its stay indoors. Water regularly, but don’t let it stand in water. If it is in a plastic or foil pot sleeve, take it out, water it in the sink or tub, and leave it there until completely drained before putting it back. Maintain the temperature of its surroundings at about 70 degrees during the day and between 60 and 65 degrees at night. If temps fall below 50 degrees, it may drop its leaves. Start feeding it with a weak, balanced fertilizer in late December and continue until temperatures outside begin to approximate those indoors, before planting out. In March or April, prune the canes back to two or three dormant buds and it will reward you with bushy re-growth during the summer. Continue pinching back to encourage bushy growth or thin canes in mid summer to produce sturdy plants with fewer, larger flowers.

Virginia Hayes, curator of Ganna Walska Lotusland, will answer your gardening questions. Address them to Gardens, The Independent, 122 W. Figueroa St., S.B., CA 93101. Send email to

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