Pink is the hot new color for poinsettias.jpg

Pink is one of the hot new colors for poinsettias.

Poinsettias are one of the most popular winter and Christmastime plants. The gorgeous display of bright red against dark green foliage is the perfect match to our traditional Christmas palette.

But these days, poinsettias have gone way beyond traditional holiday colors. There's hot pink, purple, blue and tangerine to name a few of the unexpected hues.

The LSU AgCenter Botanic Gardens at Burden is one of the nationwide trial locations for new and classic poinsettia varieties. This year, the AgCenter has teamed up with Clegg's Nursery's Color Division, a wholesale growing operation, to ask customers to take part in an evaluation to help poinsettia breeders determine which varieties are best.

Fun for kids, poinsettias for adults at LSU AgCenter Botanic Garden on Dec. 7

In addition to the AgCenter Botanic Gardens poinsettia sale (see page 1D), Clegg’s poinsettia open house will be from 8 a.m. to noon Saturday, Nov. 30, at 10645 Greenwell Springs Road. Some 45 varieties with 10,000 poinsettias will be on display.

By the way, the showy colors of the poinsettias are not flowers. They are actually modified leaves called bracts. The actual flowers are the yellow centers of the bracts.

Native to Mexico and Central America, the poinsettia grows naturally in the landscape in moist areas that get six to eight hours of indirect sunlight. The Aztecs of Mexico cultivated and used poinsettias for decorative purposes in religious ceremonies, medicinal purposes and as a reddish-purple dye.

Poinsettias get their name from Joel Poinsett, a member of the U.S. House of Representatives from South Carolina who was a physician and minister to Mexico in the early 1820s. Poinsett sent the plant home to South Carolina and shared it with other plant enthusiasts.

Since then, it has been grown and used by florists and decorators alike during the winter. Over the years, the plant has been cultivated into hundreds of varieties and the rainbow of colors we see now.

The best way to select a poinsettia is to look for one that has at least six or more bracts extending over the lower green leaves. Inspect the leaves — they should not droop — and check underneath for pests such as white flies.

The longest-lasting poinsettias will have no pollen or sap in the yellow flowers in the center of the bracts. If they do, they will not provide a display for much longer. A poinsettia should last for four to six weeks in the home if properly cared for.

Poinsettias do well indoors year-round in well-lit areas protected from drafts, as well as outdoors on patios or in a spot protected from full sun during the warmer months.

To care for it, water the plant when the soil dries. Poinsettias do not like to be too wet or too dry. Water at the base of the plant directly on the soil.

The plant produces a milky sap that may irritate those who are sensitive to latex. If eaten in large quantities, the sap may cause mild irritation or possible nausea for pets, especially small kittens and puppies. However, poinsettias are not poisonous, according to a study at Ohio State University.

Once Christmas is past, plants may continue to look good into spring. After that, some folks just throw them away or compost them. They can be transplanted into the yard, but you may lose them during hard freezes if not protected. South sides of the house will be the most protected. Before planting, cut them back to one-half their size. You can also try to get your poinsettia to bloom again for the following year.

Poinsettias are short-day plants. That means they make flowers when the nights lengthen in fall and winter. To help the plant flower and develop the colored bracts, it must receive six to eight hours of indirect sunlight during the day and 14 hours of darkness at night for 40 days straight, starting about Oct. 1. You can do this by covering the plant with a black plastic bag to the ground every afternoon and continuing the practice daily until color shows in the bracts. It takes patience.

Email questions to gardennews@agcenter.lsu.edu.