Column: Poinsettias can be enjoyed all year long

Tis the season - to see poinsettias everywhere. At $250 million annually, their wholesale production is a big holiday business in the United States. Regrettably, these perennial plants get tossed soon after the holidays are over.

In 1825, the first U.S. ambassador to Mexico, Joel Roberts Poinsett, introduced the plant to the states. They are now grown commercially in all 50 states, with California being the top producer. To make them even more exciting, they are available in pink, salmon, yellow, creamy white and marbled colors.

It is interesting to note, the showy colored leaves - called bracts - are modified leaves. The real flowers are in the center of these colorful bracts.

To choose the best plants, look for:

• one not displayed in paper or plastic sleeves, as they will deteriorate quickly,

• one with dark green foliage down to the soil line,

• one whose bracts that are completely colored, with little or no green around the bract edges,

• one with flowers that have no yellow pollen; best if they are still green or red-tipped.

In transporting your new plant, take care to cover or shield it if the outdoor temperature is below 50.

Once home, your plant will do best with a moist soil, but not too wet. Most house plants die from too much water rather than too little. Water thoroughly when the surface feels dry down to a half-inch, let the pot drain and discard any excess water. Always punch holes in foil covers to allow excess water to drain.

Poinsettias thrive on bright, sunny natural daylight, with six hours recommended. Placement near a sunny window is recommended. For longest color retention, temperatures should not exceed 70 degrees nor fall below 65 degrees. Try to keep away from drafts, heating ducts, heated appliances and fireplaces.

In temperate climates worldwide, poinsettias grow into large flowering shrubs and even trees. We as homeowners certainly can grow them as houseplants year-round and enjoy their lush colorful foliage for several months each year. Yes, the colored bracts will fade to green and fall, just like all our other flowering plants.

Here are the steps to take to keep your poinsettia growing year-round, and a challenge to rebloom next winter.

In mid-January, and again in mid-February, fertilize your plant with a balanced, all-purpose household plant food, mixed half-strength. This will help maintain the rich, green foliage and promote new growth.

At the end of April or early May, the bracts will be aged and have turned a muddy green. It is time to prune the plant back to 8-10 inches, depending on the shape of your plant. It will look stark, with bare branches and blunt stems. Keep near a sunny window or take advantage of our late May and early June weather and place outdoors. Begin again to fertilize monthly with a half-strength mixed balanced houseplant fertilizer.

In mid-June, transplant it to the next larger pot, using a soil mix with peat moss, and water thoroughly. Poinsettias flourish on bright, sunny natural daylight, with six hours daily recommended. Remember, they are outdoor plants in sunny-temperate parts of Mexico.

On Oct. 1, you will trick the plant. The trick induces bract coloring and flowering by shortening its day length (photoperiod). Each night for 10 to 14 continuous hours, move the plant into a dark room or place a large box or wastebasket over it. During this time, the plant needs 6 to 8 hours of bright sunlight and the remainder darkness, with 60- to 70-degree temperatures. In late November or early December, your poinsettia should be ready to enjoy for the new holiday season.

This is a fun project but lots of work. If the trick doesn't work because you missed a day or two of cover, or you gave up, you'll still have a wonderful green plant.

For more information on holiday plants, contact The University of Arizona Mohave County Cooperative Extension, 101 E. Beale Street, Suite A, Kingman AZ 86401-5808 or call (928) 753-3788.