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Next to Christmas trees, poinsettias are the most famous plants associated with Christmas and are more numerous. Each year millions of the plants are grown to brighten homes throughout the country.

Poinsettias were originally cultivated by the Central American Indians. They were highly prized by Montezuma, the Aztec king, but could not be grown in his capital, Mexico City, because of climatic restrictions. Franciscan priests in Mexico were probably the first to use the plants for the Christmas season. They used the plants in nativity processions in the 17th century because of their bright color and flowering season near Christmas.Poinsettias were introduced into the United States by our first ambassador to Mexico. Joel Robert Poinsett was a botanist and collected plants while working there. He sent plants to horticultural associates and botanical gardens in 1825. These were propagated, and plants eventually found their way into the greenhouse trade.

Myths have existed for many years that poinsettias are extremely toxic. As with any non-food, you should not allow children to eat their leaves, but the main hazard is the white milky sap. This sap may irritate eyes and sensitive skin or burn open cuts. If you get the sap on you, wash with soap and water.

Like most flowers with milky sap, poinsettias do not last well as a cut flower. If you want to try them for cut flowers, seal the end cut by burning it with a match or by dipping it briefly in hot water. They will last a day or two but not much longer even under the best of circumstances.

Newer varieties of poinsettias are specially bred and selected for their long-lasting color. Florists used to deliver the plants as close to Christmas Eve as possible because the color would not last and leaves would fall. Growers now select varieties that will keep their color several months if they are given minimal care.

You can benefit from a more attractive, longer-lasting plant if you keep in mind a few tips: Select a plant with deep, highly colored bracts. These colored leaves are called flowers, but the true flowers are the tiny yellow-green nubs or buttons in the center of the colored leaves. Plants with these true flowers still attached are not as mature and will last longer in your home. The flowers should show little or no pollen. The green leaves should have a dark green color; fallen or yellow leaves indicate poor fertilization or possible root disease.

After selecting your plants, protect them on the trip home. Plants should be well wrapped when you take them outdoors because exposure to low temperatures for even a short period of time will cause leaves and bracts to turn brown and drop off.

After the poinsettia is in the home or office, place it in a sunny window or other well-lighted area. Flowers should not touch cold window panes or get too cold. The plants have been grown at 60 to 70 degrees in the greenhouse and will keep best in your home between those temperatures. Higher temperatures reduce the life of the bract color. Drafts, dry forced-air heating or other extremes in temperatures and humidity will also cause the color to fade or the bracts to drop.

Check the soil moisture each day. Water only when the soil is dry to the touch. Add enough water to soak the soil thoroughly and drain out the bottom. This will keep damaging salts from accumulating in the pot. Too much water will cause root rot, yellow leaves and leaf drop. Too little water causes the plant to wilt and the leaves to drop. Fertilize the plants with a blooming plant fertilizer every two to four weeks according to the manufacturer's directions.

I learned just how much work has gone into development of the poinsettia when I visited the Paul Ecke Co., largest poinsettia propagator in the world. The poinsettia ranch is located in Encinitas, Calif. Each year plant breeders hybridize more than 10,000 different new varieties of plants. Each plant is then carefully grown from seed and evaluated for characteristics that would make it desirable from a consumer's standpoint.

In a good year, one or two of the original 10,000 plants may be introduced into the market. These developmental breeding programs have given us various shades of red, pink and white poinsettias as well as polka dot leaves. Plants with brighter colors that last longer in our homes as well as larger flower size are also selected. Energy-saving plants, that is, those that can be grown in cooler greenhouses, have also been developed as well as miniature poinsettias and other novelties.

Local greenhouses buy small plants or cuttings from specialized propagators such as Ecke poinsettias. These are planted and grown into our Christmas decorations. Growers must pay attention to all of the plant needs such as temperature, light, water and pest control, but they must also control one other factor. Poinsettias are a short-day plant. They actually flower and develop their red color when they have an uninterrupted dark period for at least 15 hours each day for eight to 10 weeks. Car lights, street lights or overhead lights can keep these plants from blooming. Growers may shade the plants with black cloths to encourage them to develop their flower color early.

Even though promoters have tried to encourage the use of poinsettias for other holidays such as Valentines and Easter, they remain a Christmas plant. If the plants don't turn red for Christmas sales, they are of little value. About the only thing worse than greenhouses full of poinsettias the week after Christmas is a lot full of Christmas trees. Select either one early in the season to add to the holiday beauty and spirit of your home. We will discuss in a future article what you should do with your poinsettia after the Christmas season.